Murder of officer "preventable"

Published Date: 27.06.2014

Senior police officers within the RUC command structure were aware of  a specific threat to one of their officers but failed to warn him about it and did not pass this information to the detectives who investigated his subsequent murder.

Sgt Joe CampbellSgt Joe Campbell

Had senior management of the RUC ensured an appropriate response to the information, this would have prevented the murder.  These are the main findings included in a 50-page report published this morning by the Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire.

PDF: Full Public Statement

The report summarises his investigation into events connected to the murder of Sergeant Joe Campbell, who was shot on the evening of 25th February 1977 as he locked the main gates of the Cushendall Police Station and died a short time later.

Dr Maguire said more than 30 retired RUC officers, from the ranks of Constable to Assistant Chief Constable, spoke to his investigators, providing valuable information and context.   “I have to conclude that Sergeant Campbell, a dedicated community police officer in the Glens of Antrim, was failed by senior members of the police service of which he was a respected member.

Evidence that senior police officers, including the then Head of Special Branch and quite probably the Chief Constable, were aware of a threat to Sgt Campbell's life and failed to act.

“There is sufficient, reliable evidence that senior police officers throughout the RUC’s command structure, including the then Head of Special Branch and quite probably the Chief Constable, were aware of concerns, which had been documented, about a threat to his life and failed to act upon them. 

“They should have responded to the threat in a far more robust way. Sergeant Campbell should have been warned, which would have allowed him to vary his routine. Police could have mounted visible police patrols in the area and if necessary posted him to an area where the threat would have been diminished or removed. None of this was done,” said Dr Maguire. 

Prior to the Murder

Former RUC officers and others provided the Police Ombudsman with a picture of mounting concern for Sergeant Campbell during the mid 1970s.  Investigators spoke at length to one of the police officers who served in Ballymena Special Branch at the time.

Officers told the de facto Head of Special Branch of their fears that "Joe was being lined up to be murdered".

He told them in detail about the specific concerns he had for Sergeant Campbell’s safety. He said that such were his fears that he contacted the then de facto Head of RUC Special Branch, a Detective Chief Superintendent.  He said he and a colleague had a series of meetings with this senior officer, during which they provided him with reports which outlined their suspicions, including that ‘Joe was to be lined up to be murdered.’  

This officer said they arranged another meeting with the Detective Chief Superintendent a number of months before the shooting, at which he assured them the Chief Constable of the time had the matter in hand.

Former Chief Constable said he had no recollection of the case.

Police Ombudsman investigators spoke to the former Chief Constable, who said he had no recollection of the Sergeant Campbell case. 

Another former Ballymena Special Branch officer told investigators that one of these officers raised the issue of Sergeant Campbell’s safety with a Detective Superintendent at RUC North Regional Special Branch Headquarters.  This senior officer declined to assist the Police Ombudsman’s investigation.  

The police officer who led the 1980 investigation into Sgt Campbell’s murder also confirmed to investigators that these two officers and another officer had been submitting reports about the potential risk to the Sergeant.

“(The reports) were in the hands of ACC Special Branch and the Chief Constable and to be honest I am not sure I would have got an honest reply if I had asked for them,” he said. 

A former Detective Chief Inspector, who had just been posted to Ballymena at the time of the murder, said that when he first arrived, two of these Special Branch officers told him of their fears and that they had submitted reports detailing their concerns.  He told Police Ombudsman investigators he believed that the then Chief Constable and the Detective Chief Superintendent, who was de facto Head of Special Branch, knew of the risk to Sgt Campbell. 

A retired Assistant Chief Constable, who had an administrative role  in Special Branch Headquarters at the time, confirmed to investigators that this Detective Chief Superintendent  had concerns about the conduct of an officer based in Ballymena and of a police informant.  Investigators also spoke to former Army personnel who said they were aware of the risk to Sgt Campbell and passed this information on to police in Ballymena. 

Following the Murder

An initial investigation into Sergeant Campbell’s murder proved fruitless.  A fresh inquiry was undertaken in 1980.

Significant failings in two murder enquiries, which were not provided with all available information.

Dr Maguire’s report identifies a number of significant failings in both these investigations. Not least of these was that not all available information was passed to the detectives.

Police Ombudsman investigators have seen a statement from a senior police officer who was tasked by the Chief Constable with making confidential enquiries into elements within Ballymena Special Branch.  That statement said ‘there was specific information available regarding those responsible for Sgt Campbell’s murder.’ 

The investigators also spoke to a police officer who had made a report which said ‘there is a link between [a bank robbery in Cushendall in early February 1977] ..........and the murder of Sgt Campbell [several weeks later].’

The detective who led the 1980 murder investigation told Police Ombudsman investigators that he had not seen either document.

During this murder investigation a team searched a premises linked to one of the suspects and recovered RUC intelligence documents which cannot now be found.

Evidence suggests disappearance of intelligence documents the result of "a deliberate act".

Dr Maguire has said that the fact this and other material, including the 1977 murder investigation files, are no longer available causes him concern: “The intelligence reports recovered during the murder investigation may have assisted in supporting or disproving the allegations against those suspected of involvement in the murder. That they simply ‘evaporated’ after being found points to a deliberate act.  

“In view of the repeated opportunities presented for the dissemination of the intelligence, it is difficult not to conclude that the material was deliberately withheld from the detectives investigating the murder,” said Dr Maguire.

A member of the RUC’s Special Branch and a man identified in court as a police informant were arrested and charged in connection with the murder. The police officer was acquitted and the man was convicted of withholding information in connection with the murder.   

Following the discovery of new material during this investigation, the Police Ombudsman’s Office submitted a file to the Public Prosecution Service.  The Director of Public Prosecutions subsequently directed that the evidential threshold required for an application to the Court of Appeal, which is higher than that required for prosecution, had not been met.

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