Discharge of firearm at Rathcoole, Newtownabbey

The Chief Constable asked the Police Ombudsman to investigate the discharge of a police firearm during an incident at Rathcoole, Newtownabbey, on 28 June 2004. All such discharges by police officers are referred to the Police Ombudsman for investigation.

The shot was fired as police attempted to restrain a man who was armed with a Samurai-style sword and was acting in an aggressive manner. The incident happened at about 6.20pm in the Carnreagh Bend area of the estate.

Police Ombudsman investigators attended the scene and tasked Scenes of Crime Officers to secure forensic evidence relating to the incident. They received witness statements from five police officers and another ten from civilian witnesses, most of which clearly corroborated the police version of events.

Based on the evidence available, the investigators ascertained that a police patrol was alerted to the incident at about 6.15pm. Three officers attended the Clonmore Green area of the estate to find a man wielding a sword of about 3 feet in length. The man was observed to be chasing local males and children, shouting and swinging the sword at them in a threatening and aggressive manner. Police officers and other witnesses described the man as being about 6' tall, heavily built, about 35 years old, wearing jeans and naked from the waist up.

Members of the public were observed to be throwing stones and other missiles at him in a bid to keep him at a safe distance. He had blood on his face, and it later transpired he had been hit on the head by a bottle and other missiles during the incident.

Officers arriving at the scene ordered the man to drop the sword, but he failed to comply and ran off before turning around again to face the police. Officers shouted further warnings as the man approached, but again these were ignored and the man continued to approach them with the sword above his head, swinging it in the direction of the officers.

Officers stated that when the man was about 10 metres from them, two of them drew their personal issue firearms and again ordered the male to drop the sword. The man, however, ignored the requests and ran off with the sword raised above his head in pursuit of another male.

The two officers who had drawn their weapons reholstered them and gave chase while another officer returned to the police car and drove in the same direction. As the officers gave chase they noticed the man swinging the sword at a number of adults and children who scattered as he approached.

When the man reached Carnreagh Bend he stopped and again turned to face the police officers, raising the sword above his head and advancing towards them. The same two officers that had previously drawn their guns did so again and warned the man to drop the sword or they would open fire.

The man refused to comply and advanced further towards the officers, waving the sword above his head. When he had reached a distance of about 10 feet from the officers, one of them raised his police issue firearm and fired a single warning shot into the air.

The man turned away from police and ran towards a nearby house, where he kicked the front door and struck it with the sword. Police noted that a number of adults and children inside the house seemed to be in a distressed state as they looked out of a downstairs window at the attacker.

The man once again turned his attention to the police officers, swinging the sword at one officer before advancing towards the other with the sword above his head. This afforded the first officer an opportunity to draw his handheld baton and strike the man on the back of his right shoulder. The man then resumed his attack on the front door of the house, before the officer was able to strike him again, this time on the back of his neck and/or head. He dropped the sword and officers were able to restrain him with handcuffs.

As officers affected his arrest for attempted murder and possession of an offensive weapon the man continued to struggle violently. A police cell van arrived and he was placed inside while officers summoned medical attention for his head wound.

One officer spoke to a number of people in the area and recorded their details as witnesses, but as they did so an increasing number of people began acting aggressively towards the male in the van. Fearing a potential escalation in public disorder, officers drove the van to the Valley Leisure Centre to await the arrival of an ambulance.

Upon arrival at the leisure centre, officers opened the back of the van and noticed a large amount of blood on the rear doors and windows. The man was seen to be repeatedly banging his head and face off the inside of the cell door and cell walls in the rear of the van. He was heard during this time to shout threats to kill police.

When the ambulance arrived the man was taken from the police van and restrained while ambulance personnel administered first aid to his head injuries. He was then taken to Whiteabbey Hospital for treatment before being taken to Antrim Road Police Station for detention and questioning. On arrival at the station's custody suite he was searched, and police found a block of what they believed was cannabis resin in his trouser pocket. He was then additionally arrested for possession of cannabis.

Police Ombudsman investigators attended the scene of the initial incident and tasked Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCOs) to photograph and take swabs from the police vehicles, which were both heavily blood-stained.

The SOCOs also took a series of photographs of the damage to the house which had been attacked, and seized the police officer's handgun and three magazines of ammunition containing 49 rounds. They also secured the spent cartridge case which had been found at the scene. In addition, a Police Ombudsman investigator took possession of a number of police uniforms and other equipment which had been seized and packaged by police.

These items were submitted for analysis to the Forensic Science Laboratory. A subsequent forensic report confirmed that the gun had been in good working order, and that the empty cartridge case found at the scene had been fired from it.

The police officers involved in the incident each supplied duty statements outlining the sequence of events. Police Ombudsman investigators also undertook house-to-house enquiries in the area, and sent out a letter appealing for any additional witnesses to come forward.

A total of 10 witness statements were secured from people at the scene, most of which clearly confirmed the version of events described by the police officers. A number of the witnesses stated that the man appeared to be under the influence of drink or drugs.

When later interviewed by police, the male stated that at the time of the incident he had been under the influence of alcohol and anti-depressants, and had been drinking heavily in the days leading up to the incident. He said he had been staying with a friend after breaking up with his girlfriend, and had decided to go for a walk around the estate. He said he took the sword, which belonged to his friend, for protection as he had received death threats.

As he walked around the estate, the man said that he became frightened and drew the sword when he saw men approaching him armed with baseball bats. He also stated that he believed police officers at the scene were members of the UVF who were going to "do him in". He said that upon realising he was being arrested by police he had gone with them peacefully. He could recall nothing about a firearm being discharged during the incident.

During interview, the man apologised to police and said he was embarrassed by his actions, which he said were out of character. He had no complaint to make about the actions of police during the incident.

Police Ombudsman investigators also inspected the firearms training records of the officer who discharged the shot and discovered that he had last been trained in the use of the Glock 9mm pistol on 15 May 2003. His annual refresher training in the use of the gun was therefore overdue at the time of the incident.

Outcome of investigation

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, concluded that the use of the police firearm during the incident was "both legal and proportionate."

"The evidence uncovered in this investigation indicates that the officer who discharged the firearm did so in the belief that the failure to do so would result in the loss of life or serious injury to himself, a colleague or a member of the public.

"The man could have been in no doubt that he was being instructed to drop the sword by armed police officers...The discharge of the weapon did not place any other person in any apparent danger."

However, Mrs O'Loan remarked upon the fact the officer who fired the shot had not received annual refresher training as required. She said similar problems in other situations had been the subject of recommendations to the police on previous occasions.

"This officer had not received any training for over a year and none was scheduled. This is not good enough," said Mrs O'Loan. "It also appears that this is not an isolated incident and commitment to firearms training has again waned. It is difficult for this Office to recommend disciplinary action if commitment to the training is not given by the organisation and managers."

In relation to the use of the handheld baton, Mrs O'Loan pointed out that the rear of the head/neck was not a designated strike area, but said the use of the baton on this occasion "formed part of a graduated response to the level of threat...and had the desired effect of causing the man to drop the sword and assisted in his restraint and subsequent arrest."

Recommendations for police as a result of the Police Ombudsman's investigation

Recommendation One: That there be a further review of the provision of firearms training and that courses be facilitated.

Recommendation Two: That a reminder system be built into personnel processes so DCU and Branch Commanders can be advised when officers are due for training and have not attended.

Recommendation Three: Mrs O'Loan pointed out that in the situation described above, other UK police forces would have had recourse to a "less lethal option, i.e. a baton gun."

"Human Rights legislation would indicate the necessity for this but the PSNI has no such policy to deploy the less lethal option in this situation," she said. "It is recommended that this situation is reviewed, and that a policy is put in place to make available the use of less lethal technology in such situations."

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