The discharge of eight baton rounds during serious disorder in the North Queen Street area of Belfast on 12 July 2011 was justified, an investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office has concluded.
A total of eight baton rounds were discharged as police prevented a Nationalist crowd from entering the nearby Tigers Bay area. Six rounds were recorded as having hit their intended targets.
As with all incidents involving the discharge of police firearms, the incident was referred by the PSNI to the Police Ombudsman for independent investigation.
Police Ombudsman investigators reviewed all relevant police documentation, CCTV footage of the disorder, as well as police radio transmissions and information on social networking sites.
They established that trouble flared at about 9.30pm on 11 July, when police responding to reports of disorder in the area came under attack by youths throwing stones, petrol bombs and fireworks.
Shortly before midnight police received information that youths from the New Lodge area were intending to enter Tigers Bay to provoke retaliatory violence from the Loyalist community.
A police line was formed across North Queen Street close to the New Lodge Road junction to prevent the crowd from advancing further.
As the violence intensified, and with police unable to withdraw from holding the line, the PSNI’s Silver Commander authorised the deployment of AEPs at 00:46 hours. However, permission to fire baton rounds was not given at this stage as other options for dealing with the disorder were still being considered. This included the use of water cannon, although none proved to be available as they were all being used to counter violence elsewhere in the city.
At 1.30am, officers on the ground reported that the rioting had intensified and requested authority to discharge AEP rounds in order to protect officers’ safety.
This was granted two minutes later as other tactical options had been tried and failed, and to counter the risk of injury to both officers and members of the public posed by the rioting.
During the course of the next 45 minutes an officer discharged a total of eight AEP rounds.
Permission to fire AEPs was withdrawn at 02:17 hours after officers informed the Silver Commander that the violence had subsided.
CCTV footage corroborated police accounts that officers had come under sustained attack, and that these attacks had intensified prior to authorisation being granted for the use of AEP rounds.
In addition, police radio transmissions confirmed that the Silver Commander had requested and received regular updates on the violence faced by officers, and had properly reviewed the authorisation to use AEP rounds. This included withdrawing authorisation for their use when the situation allowed.
Enquiries also established that the officer who discharged the AEPs had been properly trained and authorised to carry and use the AEP launcher.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that the use of AEPs had been justified, necessary and proportionate in the circumstances.
He said: “It is clear, given the location of the disorder close to an interface between Nationalist and Loyalist communities, that police had no option but to maintain their position. The use of AEPs in these circumstances was lawful and in accordance with training guidelines.”
However, Dr Maguire also recommended that police public order units should be equipped with improved CCTV evidence gathering capabilities to help identify and convict rioters.
“On many occasions, there is a delay between the arrival of police Tactical Support Groups at outbreaks of public disorder, and the subsequent availability of CCTV evidence-gathering teams.
“I have recommended that TSGs should themselves be equipped to capture CCTV evidence, which would enhance the ability of the police to bring rioters to justice.”
The report also revealed that about a quarter of the 350 AEP rounds discharged by police during public disorder in Northern Ireland during 2011 missed their target.
This prompted a recommendation from Dr Maguire that the PSNI should introduce training for AEP gunners which better replicates the situations they face during public disorder.
“Currently AEP gunners are trained on firing ranges, but I have recommended that officers should have the opportunity to develop their skills in dynamic training scenarios which more closely mirror the stresses and difficulties faced by officers during rioting,” he said.