An investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office has found that police were justified in discharging a total of 77 baton rounds (Attenuated Energy Projectiles or AEPs) during more than six hours of rioting in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast on 12 July 2011.
Trouble flared as Nationalist protesters demonstrated against a contentious Orange Order parade along the Crumlin Road on the evening of 12 July.
The parade had been approved by the Parades Commission, and police, in anticipation of potential disorder, had implemented a large-scale operation to try to ensure the event passed off peacefully.
Senior officers had previously met representatives of the Orange Order, the Crumlin and Ardoyne Residents Group and other community representatives, to try to avert any trouble.
The Orange Order had given notice that, on the morning of 12 July, four lodges and two bands would parade past the Ardoyne shop fronts on their way to join the main Twelfth of July demonstration in the city centre. The morning parade passed off peacefully and police maintained a minimal presence in the area, with other units on standby nearby.
By about 6.30pm, a large group of protesters had gathered at the Ardoyne shop fronts for the return parade by three lodges and one band.
However, by about 6.30pm, a large group of protesters had gathered at the Ardoyne shop fronts for the return parade by three lodges and one band. Police formed a line on the Crumlin Road, facing the protesters. They quickly came under attack from the protesters, who threw missiles including stones, heavy masonry and roof slates.
Given the severity of the violence, and the risk to officers and members of the public, the senior officer in command in the area (Officer 1) requested permission to use AEPs and water cannon.
A police commander authorised the use of water cannon, but not AEPs. A number of warnings were issued to the crowd, but when these were ignored the water cannon was used.
Rioting, however, continued. Officer 1, mindful that the Orange Order parade was due to arrive and that consequently police could not withdraw from the area, informed his commander that the disorder was posing a serious threat to life, and again requested permission for the use of AEPS.
Having reviewed the information available to him, including live feed CCTV footage from static and helicopter mounted cameras, the police commander authorised the use of AEPs at the Ardoyne shopfronts.
Police then issued several verbal warnings, before the first AEP was discharged shortly after 7pm. Additional warnings were issued at regular intervals as the rioting continued and spread to nearby areas, including the junction of Brompton Park/Crumlin Road, and Estoril Park.
Police received information that they were likely to be attacked with blast bombs and firearms.
Heavy masonry, fireworks, petrol bombs and other missiles were used in these attacks. Vehicles were hijacked, set alight and pushed towards police lines, and police received information that they were likely to be attacked with blast bombs and firearms.
All discharges of police firearms, including baton rounds/AEPs are automatically referred by the Chief Constable to the Police Ombudsman for independent investigation.
The Police Ombudsman’s on-duty Senior Investigating Officer was present in an observational capacity in the police control room during the first five to six hours of the disorder.
During the subsequent Police Ombudsman investigation, all relevant police paperwork was obtained and reviewed – including command and control serials, journal entries, policy and decision logs completed by senior officers, and Use of Force forms completed by officers who discharged AEPs.
More than 400 hours of CCTV footage analysed.
More than 400 hours of CCTV footage from static cameras, as well as Land Rover and helicopter-mounted cameras, was analysed, along with police radio transmissions which captured the rationale for the use of AEPs and the times at which permission for their use had been granted.
Over 100 petrol bombs were reported to have been thrown during the disorder, as well as fireworks, many of which were placed in bottles to create crude but dangerous missiles.
A total of 20 officers sustained injuries during the violence, some requiring hospital attention, and a number of police vehicles were damaged.
Authorisation to use baton rounds was withdrawn by the police commander at around 1am, by which stage 28 officers had discharged a total of 77 rounds – 48 of which were recorded as having struck their intended target, with 29 missing.
Police training records examined by Police Ombudsman investigators revealed that the officers who discharged baton rounds were fully trained and authorised to use the weapon. Firearms registers confirmed that AEP guns and ammunition had been booked in and recorded in accordance with PSNI policy.
Having reviewed the evidence, the Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that police had been subjected to “sustained and prolonged” attacks by rioters.
He said the evidence showed that police employed a series of tactics – including discussions with different parties, the deployment of officers on foot and in vehicles, the use of water cannon, and the issuing of verbal warnings - before resorting to the use of baton rounds when these proved ineffective.
“Authorisation for the deployment and discharge of AEPs was justified given the serious threat to officers and members of the public, and because all other viable options available to the police had been exhausted,” said Dr Maguire.
Use of baton rounds justified, but series of recommendations to the police.
However, he made a number of recommendations to police based on the findings of this and other investigation into the use of AEPs during disorder in 2011.
Noting that around a quarter of the 350 baton rounds discharged by police across Northern Ireland during the summer of 2011 missed their intended target, Dr Maguire recommended that police revise their training in the use of baton guns to more closely “mirror the environment, stresses and difficulties they face in a riot situation.”
He also noted that only a small proportion of baton round discharges are captured on CCTV and recommended that the PSNI should consider the use of body-worn cameras, or cameras mounted on baton round launchers.
In addition, Dr Maguire commented on the fatigue likely to have been experienced by officers during the incident. He noted that some had also been on duty during serious rioting in west Belfast the previous evening, and had therefore been on duty for over 24 hours by the end of the disorder, with few rest periods.
“Some of these officers finished duty in the early hours of 12 July 2011 only to be detailed back on duty for 0700 hours as part of the policing operation for the Orange Order parade in north Belfast,” he said.
“The PSNI should consider whether it is appropriate to deploy AEP gunners and drivers (who are required to drive their vehicles tactically to disperse crowds) when it is clear they have worked long hours and when sleep deprivation, fatigue and stress are likely to impact on their accuracy and ability to cope with the demands of their role.”
Dr Maguire also noted that on many occasions, police might be dealing with disorder for some time before a CCTV evidence gathering team is available. He therefore recommended that each police Tactical Support Group should have its own CCTV evidence gathering capability to enable evidence to be captured immediately.