An investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office has concluded that police were justified in firing three AEPs (baton rounds) at rioters during disturbances associated with the flags protests in east Belfast in January 2013.
The rounds were fired on the evening of 5 January 2013 as officers came under attack with a range of missiles, including paint and petrol bombs, fireworks and masonry.
Rioting had broken out in the Lower Newtownards Road area earlier that afternoon and police had used watercannon. There had also been a firearms incident and police had information suggesting there were other gunmen in the area.
At around 7.20pm police responded to a call reporting a fire opposite the Great Eastern Bar on the Lower Newtownards Road. They were confronted at the scene by a crowd of up to 100 people, many of whom attacked police with masonry, fireworks and petrol bombs.
Permission to use AEPs was granted after rioters had climbed onto police Land Rovers, and a police commander reported a serious threat to life.
At around 7.25pm the police Bronze Commander reported to police control that his officers were coming under a sustained attack, and rioters had climbed onto the police Land Rovers. He requested immediate authority to deploy AEPs, as he deemed there to be a serious threat to life.
The Silver Commander authorised their deployment, but not their use. However, following another request from the Bronze Commander, and a report from another police unit relating to the severity of the rioting, the Silver Commander authorised the use of AEPs at 7.28pm.
The first round was fired two minutes later at a man reported by the baton gunner as having been approaching police lines with a lit object in his right hand. The gunner said he checked that the area behind this person was clear before his discharged an AEP. The round struck the man on the leg and he then ran off.
A few minutes later a hijacked car was set alight, but by 7.38pm the rioting had subsided and shortly afterwards the authority to use AEPs was downgraded to an authority to deploy the weapon.
The situation and the need for the use of AEPs and watercannon was kept under review. Water cannon continued to be used, but the use of AEPs was not authorised again until after 10.16pm when a burning vehicle was pushed out of Lord Street and onto the Albertbridge Road.
At 10.18pm a police unit reported that three petrol bombs had been thrown at police, and by 10.31pm, a police unit reported that two baton rounds had been discharged.
All three AEPs reported to have struck their targets.
Both were recorded as having been targeted at men who had thrown petrol bombs at police lines. One was recorded as having struck the man beneath the belt buckle area, the other struck the other man above the same area. Both men withdrew back into the crowd.
Permission to use AEPs was rescinded at 10.50pm, and no further rounds were discharged that evening.
At 1.30am, the crew in the watercannon reported that two panes of armoured glass on the vehicle had been cracked. It was believed this had been caused by ball bearings fired from catapults.
Having considered the evidence, the Police .Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that the use of AEPs had been lawful and proportionate given the level of violence faced by police officers during the disturbances.