On August 12th, 2020, a 26 years-old Egyptian immigrant who is legally resident on Italian soil was spotted while sitting on the stairs of Milan’s central Duomo cathedral by private security operators and police; the man attracted attention after behaving nervously and suspiciously. As the officers approached him for a check, the individual pulled out a knife and rushed towards the entrance of the Duomo, chased by a private security officer. It is yet unclear what really occurred when the officer reached him, but the situation unfolded with the individual holding a knife against the guard who appeared wounded and who was made kneel-down inside the church. As more police agents reached the scene, the attacker went on for over 20 minutes threatening to behead the guard, and this is where the whole drama begins, accompanied by a dangerous improvisation by agents.
The full viewed can be viewed below
Preventive screening failure
One first sign that indicates the failure of a security apparatus that is supposed to detect potentially dangerous individuals and intervene before they can put at stake lives (specifically in one of the most notorious touristic sites in Italy), is not much in the fact that the assailant was able to reach the site armed with a knife, but rather in how he easily managed to pull out the weapon and run inside the church while being approached by the Police. The intervening officers should have considered a potentially violent and sudden reaction of the individual, and they should have taken proper measures to prevent it, something that they did not do.
According to Italian news reports, the attacker was chased inside the Duomo by a private security guard in service at the site and once inside he was outpowered by the armed assailant who had him kneel down while threatening to stab or behead him.
A long, unprofessional, and improvised negotiation
What follows inside the Duomo is a second sign of a major security failure, this time through an absurd dialogue (calling it negotiation would be very generous) between the attacker and several agents, in an uncoordinated way and often overlapping each other, while aiming their guns at him.
While pointing firearms, the officers try to calm down the attacker by saying “put the knife down, nothing will happen to you”. At some point, one of the officers even removes his gun belt and gun, like if it was some sort of police TV series broadcasted on Netflix. An unnecessary delay accompanied by a dramatization that could and should have been avoided.
The assailant could have easily severely wounded or even killed the victim before any of the agents would have been able to fire a single shot at him and it is only due to a huge stroke of luck that the situation did not unfold into a tragedy.
At the end of the action, while several agents progressively approach the attacker, one of them jumps on him and almost end up being slashed as the blade dangerously reaches his left ear and neck areas. No attempt to grab the arm with the knife is made by the intervening officer.
The police did not fire
Previous similar cases in countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, the United States and Israel (just to cite some) ended up with the police shooting the knifeman to prevent him from stabbing. However, this rarely occurs in Italy, as confirmed once again by yesterday’s case. The Italian police decided not to fire their guns at the attacker who was threatening a wounded victim.
According to some local opinions, not shooting the attacker was a positive decision as it demonstrated that things can be achieved without violence, but is it really so? This point of view is based exclusively on the fact that the attacker did not slash or stab the victim in these long 20 minutes of negotiation, but it was most likely up to him rather than to the officers rushed to the scene. Who was really in control of the situation? Most likely the knifeman, and this is not acceptable when there is a life at stake.
At this point, many will ponder why the police did not shoot, even if they could have simply wounded the attacker, due to the very close range. Is it for fear of a potential judicial trial, as it often happens in Italy when a police agent tries to properly do his job and injures a criminal?
After all, in December 2016 two police officers in Sesto San Giovanni (a municipality just outside of Milan) shot and killed jihadist Anis Amri and a few hours later the Minister of Interior Affairs at that time, Marco Minniti, publicly mentioned names and last names of the two police officers who fatally shot the terrorist; an illogic, senseless and reckless move that caused serious concern for the officers’ safety. Hence, can police officers be blamed for not wanting to shoot? Probably not.
Going back to similar cases that share some similarities with yesterday’s episode in Milan’s Duomo square, it is worth mentioning the one occurred in September 2019 in the square in front of Milan’s Central Train Station, when a Yemeni refugee stabbed a soldier and threatened several others before being taken down on the ground by a 52 years-old Senegalese man who happened to be passing by.
The message being passed out by this “non-modus operandi” is not positive at all because it encourages potential assailants to carry out attacks, especially against the security forces, because they simply cannot use the required force to neutralize them. Indeed, this is not an invitation to use excessive force, but rather a just one when the situation requires it, in order to protect the lives of officers and civilians.
From the scenes seen yesterday, it is also undeniable how the Italian police needs proper training and the Institutions in charge are required to provide it, because in certain situation it is just not possible to improvise. Next time a potential attacker might not be willing to put the knife down so easily or there might not be a 52 years-old Senegalese man willing to put his life at risk to save those who are supposed to be there to protect him.
It will take time for Italy to solve such issues, as their roots are mainly political and reside in the institutional upper floors and higher police ranks. In the meantime, the lives of police officers on the street and the ones of civilians are at stake on a daily base.