The Police Ombudsman has concluded that police were justified in firing 130 AEP baton rounds during two nights of serious disorder at an east Belfast interface in June 2011.
Dr Michael Maguire found that police had no option but to use baton rounds given the severity of the violence at the interface between the Newtownards Road and the Short Strand on 20 and 21 June.
Three people sustained gunshot wounds, and hundreds of petrol bombs and several blast bombs were reported to have been thrown at police during more than 12 hours of rioting spread across the two evenings.
Over 200 hours of CCTV examined, as well as police paperwork, computer records and radio transmissions.
The use of AEPs was referred by police for investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office. Investigators examined over 200 hours of CCTV footage, as well as all relevant police paperwork, computer records and radio transmissions.
The first reports of trouble were received by police at around 9pm on 20 June, when houses in the Short Strand area were reported to be coming under attack.
Police had received no advance intelligence about the likelihood of disorder and the only police public order unit available at that time was redeployed from other duties in north Belfast.
When they arrived, they reported that several hundred people were involved in hand-to-hand fighting using clubs, stones, bats, masonry, petrol bombs and fireworks. Police were attacked by both sides and the Police Ombudsman’s report notes that they were “overwhelmingly outnumbered” and unable to contain the violence.
Officers recalled that rioters were trying to gain entry to the Land Rovers, and were attacking the vehicles at close range with masonry, metal poles and petrol bombs. The unit commander said his officers had difficulty dousing flames entering their vehicle.
Rioting on the first night continued for over seven hours.
Police reinforcements arrived and the rioting continued for over seven hours, during which a number of shots were fired by rioters, striking police vehicles several times.
Two youths from the Loyalist community received gunshot wounds to the legs following gunfire from the Nationalist side, and at around 1am a suspected gunman was seen to step out from behind a wall at Wolfe Close, take up a firing position and aim what appeared to be a handgun at police lines. A police baton gunner fired an AEP, striking him on the knee, at which point he made off into the crowd.
Police units were stood down shortly after 4.20am, at which stage the area was reported to be calm. By then police had discharged a total of 57 AEPs.
Police placed public order units and water cannon on standby in case of any further disorder the following evening. At around 8pm on June 21 reports started to come in of large groups of youths gathering on both sides of the interface.
By 9.30pm, serious violence had broken out and the Lower Newtownards Road was closed to traffic. Police reported coming under sustained petrol bomb attack close to St Matthew’s Church, a number of police vehicles were damaged and had to withdraw, and water cannons were tasked to the area.
A number of rioters from the Loyalist side were seen throwing petrol bombs onto the roofs of houses in the Short Strand. Residents were dousing the flames with hoses, while also on the roofs, rioters threw petrol bombs and missiles at Loyalists and police.
Loyalists and Republicans were reported to have firearms.
At 11.34pm, police informed all units and members of the media that Loyalists had a firearm which they intended to use against police, and seven minutes later the Silver Commander reported that a Republican gunman had a firearm in the vicinity of St Matthew’s Church.
Fifteen minutes later, police reported hearing three low velocity shots in the Lower Newtownards area, resulting in a media photographer sustaining a gunshot wound to the lower leg. It was later established that the shots had come from the Short Strand area.
At 12.40am the driver of water cannon reported that the windscreen of his vehicle had been struck by a bullet at Pitt Place.
Authorisation for the use of AEPs was finally withdrawn at 2.52am when the Silver Commander assessed that the violence was no longer of such intensity to justify their continued use. A total of 73 AEPs were discharged during the second night of disorder.
A complaint was received from a female member of the public who said she had been watching the disturbances at Pitt Place when she was struck by an AEP. A number of other witnesses recalled seeing her flinch, but had not seen what had struck her.
Police baton gunners could not recall a female being struck by an AEP, either directly or indirectly. Neither could their assistants, and there was no CCTV footage of the incident.
Officers properly trained and weapons and ammunition properly accounted for.
Police records showed that all officers who had discharged AEPs were trained to the required standard, and all AEP weapons and ammunition had been properly accounted for.
As required, a file was submitted to the Public Prosecution Service, which directed that no officer should be prosecuted for their actions during the disorder.
Having reviewed the evidence, Dr Maguire noted that police had tried all other available tactics before resorting to the use of AEPs, and concluded that their use had been properly authorised and “kept under continual review”.
“The discharges were necessary and proportionate given the risks the violence posed to police officers and members of the public. No criminal or misconduct issues were found in respect of any police officer(s),” he said.