Police were justified in discharging a total of 43 batons rounds during serious rioting in Belfast on 12 July 2011, a Police Ombudsman investigation has concluded.
Violence broke out at around 10.30pm on 11 July after large crowds gathered in west Belfast close to the Broadway roundabout. The roundabout separates Nationalist West Belfast from the nearby largely Unionist Village area, where Loyalists had gathered at an Eleventh Night bonfire.
At one stage during the disorder rioters forced passengers off a bus on Belfast’s Falls Road. They then drove the vehicle to the Donegall Road, where it collided with a car containing a pregnant woman. The woman was taken to hospital for treatment.
As is normal procedure when police firearms are used, the use of baton rounds was referred by the police to the Police Ombudsman’s Office for independent investigation.
During their investigation, Police Ombudsman investigators examined police documentation, CCTV footage of the disorder, recordings of police radio transmissions, as well as material from social media sites.
Police had held a number of operational meetings well in advance of 11 July to prepare for potential disorder, given that trouble had flared in the area on the same date on a number of previous years. A large number of officers and a number of water cannons were deployed in readiness for any violence.
The policing operation began at around 10.20pm after police received reports of crowds gathering in Nationalist areas. A line of police Land Rovers was placed across the road at Broadway to prevent any movement into the Village area. A number of water cannon vehicles were deployed in support.
Once in place, police lines quickly came under attack by members of the crowd, who were throwing masonry, petrol bombs and other missiles. A number of police officers sustained injuries, mostly minor.
The hijacking of the bus happened at around 11pm and was captured on CCTV. After it had collided with the car at Donegall Road, officers told Police Ombudsman investigators they were concerned it would be set alight and would pose a serious risk to local residents. Police units were ordered to advance to protect the vehicle.
As they did so they came under attack by an 80-strong crowd. Officers formed a line around the vehicle, which was removed from the scene later that evening.
Police radio transmissions and CCTV footage shows that the rioting intensified after 11.30pm. Two officers were taken to hospital with head injuries after being struck by missiles.
At about 11.40pm, police on the ground requested that water cannon be used to prevent rioters getting too close to police lines. Authority to deploy AEP systems was also requested (i.e. authority for officers to get baton guns from their vehicles in readiness for possible use). Both requests were granted by the a senior officer.
Although the use of water cannon helped contain the rioting, disorder continued and a number of officers were injured.
At about 12.15am police at Broadway reported that a van had been hijacked and driven at police lines before being set on fire. Police were forced to move further down the road as a result.
As the intensity of the rioting increased, the danger to officers was heightened by the fact that the water cannon was due to leave to refill. Meanwhile, the standby water cannon had developed a fault, and a third water cannon was already being used to deal with rioting at the nearby Donegall Road.
Just before 12.25am, the police Silver Commander gave authority for units in the Broadway area to fire baton rounds at identified targets deemed to pose a serious risk to officers. A number of warnings were broadcast using vehicle-mounted PA equipment, but these were ignored and the violence continued.
During the course of the next three hours 43 baton rounds were discharged, 31 of which hit their intended targets. All rounds were discharged when authorisation for their use was in place.
Police Ombudsman investigators examined evidence which illustrated that police commanders kept the authorisation for the use of baton rounds under continual review in light of information relayed to them by officers on the ground, and from ground-based and helicopter cameras.
Authorisation was finally withdrawn at 3.17am when it was judged that the violence had subsided to a level at which the continued use of baton rounds was no longer justified.
Enquiries confirmed that all officers who discharged baton rounds were properly trained and authorised to use the weapon.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that the use of baton rounds was, in the circumstances, justified, proportionate and necessary.
“The evidence clearly indicates that the violence posed a serious threat to the safety of police officers and members of the public,” he said. “The use of baton rounds was authorised only when it was clear that there were no other viable options for dealing with the disorder.
“Police had previously used a range of tactics, including the tactical use of their vehicles, deploying on foot and the use of water cannon.”
Dr Maguire made a number of recommendations to police as a result of the investigation of this incident and the use of baton rounds during other outbreaks of disorder in 2011.
The recommendations were prompted by the fact that around a quarter of all baton rounds fired during 2011 missed their intended target, and by the fact that only a small number of discharges of baton rounds were captured on camera.
He recommended that police should introduce training for baton gunners which more closely mirrors the stressful situations officers face in riot situations. He also recommended that officers should be equipped with body-worn cameras, or cameras mounted on baton round launchers so that more baton rounds discharges are recorded.
In addition, he noted that police may be deployed to deal with serious disorder for some time before a CCTV evidence gathering team becomes available. He recommended that each police Tactical Support Group should be equipped with its own CCTV evidence gathering capabilities so that footage can be captured immediately they are deployed.