The Police Ombudsman was called in to investigate after a police officer discharged two shots from his revolver as he and colleagues tried to quell public disorder in Carrickfergus on 15 June 2003. The Police Ombudsman and the Chief Constable have agreed a protocol that all discharges of police firearms should be referred to the Police Ombudsman for independent investigation.
The officer who discharged his weapon was part of a two man patrol travelling in a police car when, at 1143 hours on Saturday 14 June 2003, they received a radio transmission about a stabbing incident at Carrickfergus Castle. The officers arrived at the scene about five minutes later.
In statements provided to the Police Ombudsman's Office, the officers said that upon arriving at the castle they saw two groups of males, the larger of which was pushing and acting aggressively towards the smaller. Some of the people involved had facial injuries and bloodstains on their shirts.
The officers told Police Ombudsman investigators that they approached the crowd to try to establish information about the incident, but a large number of people continued acting in an aggressive manner. The officers withdrew for their own safety to the police car and requested further assistance.
Having done so, the officers noticed a crowd of around 8 to 12 males attacking another male on the other side of the road. The person being attacked ran across the road, pursued by his attackers, in the direction of the two officers. He was caught by the pursuing males, punched and knocked to the ground where he lay as the group kicked him. The officers stated that a number of the attackers were holding beer bottles and were trying to manoeuvre into a position which would allow them to strike the male being attacked.
At this point one of the police officers, who told Police Ombudsman investigators that he feared for the man's life, drew his police issue revolver, pointed it in the air, shouted warning shots and fired two shots into the air in the direction of Belfast Lough.
The officer, who stated that he was about 10 yards from the scene of the assault at the time, said several of the males then ceased their attack. Some continued, but the officer and his colleague were able to force them away.
About this time a total of six additional police officers arrived at the scene, having responded to the previous request for assistance. The first to reach the scene told Police Ombudsman investigators that a male was on the ground being viciously attacked by a group of 10 to 12 males. He alighted from the police vehicle in which he was travelling and immediately drew his police issue baton. At this point he heard two loud bangs which had the effect of causing those involved in the attack to back away from the male on the ground. No arrests were made in relation to the incident.
The gun used during the incident was subsequently seized by Police Ombudsman staff, along with four rounds of .38 calibre ammunition and two spent cartridge cases.
Investigators were also provided with a total of seven witness statements by officers who had been at the scene. These statements corroborated the version of events provided by the officer who discharged his weapon.
Despite a media appeal for additional witnesses, and a request for information from the man who was being assaulted, no civilian witnesses came forward to assist the investigation. Neither was CCTV footage of the incident available. No complaint was received from any member of the public in relation to police conduct during the incident.
Investigators examined the firearms training record of the officer who discharged the shots. This revealed that the officer had not attended refresher training in the use of the Ruger revolver since 22 May 2002. This was in contravention of force guidelines which state that such training should take place at least twice and preferably three times a year.
Outcome of investigation
The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, concluded that the use of force by police during the incident was proportionate, within legislation and guidelines and necessary to prevent serious injury as well as being in accordance with Force instructions and training.
The officers were totally outnumbered and confronted by a hostile mob who were in the act of physically attacking a man as he lay on the ground, said Mrs O'Loan. The officer had to give consideration to the safety of himself and his colleagues. Having given a verbal warning, which was ignored, the only option available to the officer was to fire warning shots.
The discharge of the weapon did not place any person in any apparent danger, added Mrs O'Loan, who also stated that her investigators had received the full co-operation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland during their investigation.
However, she also referred to the fact that the officer's failure to maintain his firearms training record amounted to a breach of the police Code of Ethics, although this did not mean that he was breaking the law or that he was unauthorised to carry the weapon.
The Police Ombudsman recommended that the officer who discharged his weapon should be subject to a management discussion in relation to his failure to keep his firearms training up-to-date.