The Police Ombudsman was called in to investigate the discharge of four rounds from a police issue MP5 semi-automatic weapon during serious rioting in the Ardoyne Road area of Belfast shortly before midnight on 28 July 2001. The incident was referred for investigation by the Chief Constable of the PSNI.
The incident happened after police had been tasked to attend Glenbryn Park where a hijacked bus had been set alight. A police unit arrived at the scene at 11.15pm and immediately came under attack from members of a hostile crowd of around 100 people.
A police officer tried, unsuccessfully, to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher, after which police Land Rovers moved to the junction of Glenbryn Park and the Ardoyne Road, facing in the direction of Glenbryn. At this point an officer standing at the rear of a Land Rover saw what he described as a muzzle flash from an automatic weapon further up the Ardoyne Road. He said the gunman was dressed in a dark hat, was wearing dark clothes and was holding a longarm. The officer fired a total of four shots and reported seeing the gunman duck down and move away out of sight.
Due to severe ongoing rioting police were unable to hold the area and withdrew from the scene.
During their investigation of the incident Police Ombudsman investigators seized the police firearm and submitted it for forensic analysis. Once the rioting had subsided, police also undertook a search of the area, finding two cartridge cases at the junction of Ardoyne Road and Glenbryn Park and two more at the junction of Glenbryn Drive and Ardoyne Road. Prior to being taken for forensic analysis, the exhibits were photographed in situ.
Forensic analysis confirmed that the cartridges found at the Glenbryn Park/Ardoyne Road junction had been discharged by the police officer. Of the other two; one was found to be an 8mm blank cartridge, the other a spent 7.65mm pistol cartridge.
However, a further 28 spent cases were also found in the area, which had been the scene of other firearms discharges during the day and the previous evening. Twenty-six of these were later established to be spent blank cases; two were spent 7.65mm cases.
Subsequent tests were carried but it was not possible to categorically link the two cases found at the Glenbryn Drive/Ardoyne Road junction to the incident described by the officer who discharged his weapon.
The Police Ombudsman’s investigation also established that other police units had been in the area at the time of the discharge of the police firearm. Indeed, one police unit was deployed at the junction of Glenbryn Drive and Glenbryn Parade, where the officer stated the hostile gunfire had come from.
Analysis of police radio transmission tapes also revealed that another unit, which had been stationed on the Ardoyne Road, between Glenbryn Parade and Glenbryn Drive, reported taking fire from front and back at the time the police officer discharged his weapon.
There was a heated exchange between officers, with a member of this unit stating "Does that man know he fired through police lines?" This officer was subsequently interviewed by Police Ombudsman investigators and his notes relating to the incident examined. These showed that the officer had slightly injured himself while attempting to take cover.
Outcome of investigation
The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, concluded that the officer had mistaken the position of the gunman and by discharging shots in that direction had placed fellow officers in danger.
"It is clear that the officer did not give full consideration to public or his colleagues' safety. He fired through police lines and in doing so caused one of his colleagues to slightly injure himself while attempting to take cover."
There was, however, no doubt that a gunman had fired at police lines from somewhere in the Ardoyne Road area said Mrs O'Loan. And she said the circumstances of the incident - during serious public disorder, in the dark with a bus was ablaze nearby - must also be considered.
"Whilst the officer may have genuinely believed that he faced a threat, it is still incumbent on him to assess the competing risks in discharging a firearm and inadequate attention was paid to this, placing colleagues in real danger. These are matters that should be addressed in training."
The officer's training records were also examined and he was found to be properly authorised to use the weapon.
Recommendations for police as a result of the Police Ombudsman's investigation:
Mrs O'Loan recommended that the officer be informally disciplined regarding his failure to consider the consequences of firing through police lines, along with further training to reinforce the advice.