The Police Ombudsman has found that police were justified in discharging 20 baton rounds during serious disorder in Portadown on 15 July 2011.
Trouble flared after Loyalists gathered to protest at the removal of flags from the Corcrain Bridge area the previous evening. Loyalists believed the flags had been removed by Nationalists.
A police operation had been put in place in anticipation of the protest and officers held discussions with local community representatives in a bid to ensure the event passed off peacefully.
The protest was initially peaceful, but at around 20:30 hours police formed a line at the junction of Corcrain Road and the largely Nationalist Craigwell Avenue to prevent a group of Loyalists from erecting a flag in an area likely to heighten local tensions.
By 21:00 hours a crowd of around 100 Loyalist protesters had gathered at the Edgarstown bonfire site off the Corcrain Road. Some of the crowd began to throw stones and other missiles over a “peace wall” into the Nationalist Obins Street area.
Police were attacked with petrol bombs, fireworks, paint bombs and other missiles.
When police Land Rovers moved in to prevent these attacks, they themselves were attacked with petrol bombs, fireworks, paint bombs and other missiles.
At 22:05 hours, with the violence continuing, permission was granted for officers to use baton rounds.
During the course of the next two hours 20 rounds were discharged, 19 of which were recorded as having hit their targets. Eight were fired at the scene of the initial disorder at the bonfire site, five were discharged during subsequent violence at West Street, and a further seven were fired in the Union Street area.
Permission to use baton rounds was withdrawn at 01:09 hours the following morning, by which stage the violence had subsided.
All discharges of police firearms in Northern Ireland are automatically referred by the police to the Police Ombudsman for independent investigation.
Police Ombudsman investigators examined police documentation, obtained statements from officers involved in the operation, and examined CCTV footage captured by a police helicopter and ground-based cameras at the Edgarstown bonfire site and at West Street. The footage showed police vehicles being attacked by rioters.
At one stage footage captured at the bonfire site shows a puff of smoke coming from a “porthole” in the side of a Land Rover as a male is in the process of throwing a missile at an adjacent Land Rover. The male is then seen to limp back into the crowd.
Petrol bombs were prepared in adjacent alleyways.
The footage at West Street shows several petrol bombs being prepared in adjacent alleyways before being thrown at Land Rovers. No baton round discharges were captured in this footage.
Police radio transmission were also analysed, and these confirmed police records as to the times at which permission to deploy and use baton rounds had been given.
Examination of police training records showed that the seven officers who discharged baton rounds during the incident were properly trained and authorised in the use of the weapon. Armoury records also tallied with the number of rounds recorded by officers as having been discharged.
Having reviewed the evidence, the Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, noted that authorisation for the use of baton rounds had only been granted after other tactics had proved ineffective. These included the tactical use of police vehicles and the broadcasting of warnings on PA equipment.
Use of baton rounds was proportionate and necessary given the potential for loss of life or serious injury.
“The use of baton rounds was proportionate to the degree of violence directed at police and was necessary given the potential for loss of life or serious injury posed by the disorder,” said Dr Maguire.
He noted that police had kept the authorisation for the use of baton rounds under continual review and had removed authorisation when circumstances allowed.
He also noted that only one baton round discharge had been captured on CCTV and recommended that police should consider the use of cameras, either worn or mounted on baton round launchers. He said this would improve accountability, as well as the PSNI’s evidence-gathering capabilities.
A file was also sent to the Public Prosecution Service relating to a complaint from a member of the public who was struck by a baton round during the disturbances. He had been arrested at the time, but claimed not to have been rioting and therefore to have been struck for no reason. He identified a number of witnesses who were interviewed by Police Ombudsman investigators.
The officer who fired the round said he had targeted the man because he had been attacking a police Land Rover with a sledgehammer. His account was corroborated by a number of other officers.
The PPS directed that the officer should not be prosecuted, and Dr Maguire concluded he should not face any disciplinary action.
The man who made the complaint subsequently appeared at court and pleaded guilty to the offences of riotous behaviour and criminal damage.