An investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office has found that police may have helped to avert a potentially serious incident in Carrickfergus in July 2011 when rioters were prevented from a suspected attempt to set fire to a petrol filling station.
The incident happened in the early hours of 10 July 2011 after police received reports of serious disorder in the Woodburn Road area of the town.
Police arrived at the scene to find a vehicle on its roof burning in the middle of the road. A crowd of up to 50 people threw stones and other missiles at police from behind the vehicle.
Police also noticed that an Ulsterbus, parked at the side of the road near to the filling station, was being attacked by members of the crowd.
Police feared rioters would set fire to bus at petrol station.
Fearing that the bus could be hijacked and burnt out, and given its proximity to the filling station, the officer in command of the police unit (Officer 1) instructed his officers to disperse the crowd.
When police moved their Land Rovers into position between the rioters and the bus, the vehicles were attacked with iron bars, heavy masonry, bottles and other missiles.
Officers also noted that a rioter had managed to get into the driver’s seat of the bus. However, on seeing police nearby, he ran off. Officer 1 then instructed a number of his officers to approach the bus on foot and remove it from the area.
As the officers approached the bus they were attacked by rioters who threw heavy masonry at them. Officer 1 then made a radio transmission to request permission to use AEPs (baton rounds) to protect the officers.
This was granted and Officer 1, who stated that in the circumstances there had been no opportunity to issue a warning, immediately ordered the use of AEPs against identified rioters.
Two baton rounds discharged, one of which struck its target.
One AEP was then discharged at a rioter wearing a balaclava who was throwing masonry at the officers trying to board the bus. The round struck the rioter on the left thigh and he limped back into the crowd.
Two minutes later, at 3.20am, a second AEP was discharged at a rioter, missing its target and landing in a grassed area behind him.
In a statement to Police Ombudsman investigators, Officer 1 said the AEP discharges had provided cover for the officers tasked with retrieving the bus, allowing them to board the vehicle, get it started and drive it away from the area.
The officer also stated that after the discharges, the rioters dispersed into the nearby Elmwood Estate.
Following the discharges, Officer 1 then consulted with the PSNI Silver Commander who had been in command of the police response to the disturbances in Carrickfergus, as well as more extensive disorder in Ballyclare on the same evening, during which a total of 37 AEPs had been discharged. The Silver Commander then withdrew authorisation to use AEPs.
Three other vehicles broken into and moved towards the forecourt of the filling station.
Officer 1 said his unit remained in the area to monitor the situation. Whilst doing so he said his officers became aware that three other vehicles had been broken into and moved towards the forecourt of the filling station.
He believed the vehicles had been moved there as part of an attempt to set fire to the petrol station and said he had no doubt that the swift actions of his unit and the tactical use of AEPs had prevented a potentially serious incident.
Decisive action averted a more serious incident.
The Police Ombudsman’s report concluded that “decisive” action by Officer 1 had “averted a more serious incident.”
The report also noted that a failure by police to notify the Police Ombudsman’s Duty Senior Investigating Officer about the discharges in Carrickfergus had delayed the start of an investigation into the circumstances in which they had been used.
When interviewed about this failure, the Silver Commander stated that he considered the disorder in Ballyclare and Carrickfergus to be part of the same incident as they were covered by the same police command structure and resources.
He believed that as the Police Ombudsman’s Office had been informed about the discharge of AEPs in Ballyclare, there was no need to provide separate notification of those in Carrickfergus.
However, the Police Ombudsman concluded that as the discharges had happened in different towns at different times, they should have been reported as separate incidents.
He judged, however, that the situation had arisen as a result of a misinterpretation of guidelines and concluded that no disciplinary action was warranted.