Police were justified in discharging five baton rounds during intense rioting associated with the flags protests in east Belfast on 7 January 2013, a Police Ombudsman investigation has concluded.
All five rounds were recorded as having hit their targets in the lower limb area. No arrests were made at the time of the discharges .
Earlier on the afternoon of 7 January, police had received information that firearms and blast bombs were to be used against officers.
Although there were no reports of any gunfire during the disturbances, police vehicles were attacked with sledgehammers, hatchets, petrol bombs, masonry, fireworks and other missiles. A loud explosion, possibly from a firework or a blast bomb was also heard close to police lines.
Officers reported that rioters were targeting the tyres, engines and windscreens of their vehicles in a bid to disable them. Paint bombs were also being used in a bid to obscure their windscreens.
Rioters attempted to disable police vehicles by targeting tyres, engines and windscreens.
One officer reported that a rioter had used a sledgehammer to shatter the window beside a police inspector. Another expressed concern that rioters might breach the skin of his vehicle using a hatchet, while another reported that his vehicle was on fire and was being attacked by rioters with hatchets and hammers.
Police had initially deployed water cannon, but this had failed to quell the rioting. As the attacks continued, the police Bronze Commander warned that he might have to self-authorise the use of AEPs if authority for their use was not granted by the Silver Commander.
After receiving an assessment of the risk to officers’ lives posed by the rioting, the Silver Commander authorised the use of AEPs.
The five rounds were discharged within a half hour period. Three were fired at rioters who were reported to have been throwing masonry at police vehicles at Newtownards Road, Saunders Close and Cuban Walk. All hit their targets in the leg, and the people struck each withdrew back into the crowd.
Another was discharged close to the junction of the Newtownards Road and McMaster Street. The officer who fired it recorded that a crowd of about 100 people had been attacking police, a large number of them using sledgehammers, axes, fence posts and heavy masonry.
He said two males attacked the windows of his vehicle and another Land Rover beside it using a sledgehammer and a fencepost as a battering ram.
The officer said he considered firing an AEP at the man with the sledgehammer as he attacked the vehicle beside him, but decided not to as he was less than five metres away and was concerned about causing him serious injury.
Officer decided not to fire at rioter as he was less than five metres away and was concerned about causing him serious injury.
The man then began to attack his own vehicle, and managed to shatter the driver’s window. Meanwhile, the man with the fence post was attacking the vehicle beside him. The officer tried to take aim through the porthole in the side of the Land Rover but as he did so the man with the sledgehammer swung it at the AEP launcher, forcing the officer to withdraw the weapon.
Moments later, however, the officer was able to discharge a shot at the man with the fencepost. He was struck on the leg and fell to the ground injured, before being assisted by others in the crowd.
The fifth round was discharged at a man who was recorded as having approached police with a lit petrol bomb. It too struck the man in the leg.
Authority for the deployment of AEPs was rescinded at around 9.15pm, and no further rounds were discharged that evening.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that the use of AEPs had been lawful and proportionate given the sustained and violent attack which officers had been subjected to.
“The decision to issue, deploy and discharge AEPs was lawful and in accordance with existing legislation and training guidelines,” he said.