Police were justified in firing six AEPs in east Belfast on 12 January 2013 during rioting associated with the Union Flag protests, an investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office has concluded.
Officers were attacked with masonry, paving stones, fireworks, flag poles and other weapons during several hours of rioting in the Castlereagh and Beersbridge Road areas.
During their investigation of the use of AEPs, Police Ombudsman investigators reviewed relevant police records, obtained statements from the officers who had discharged rounds, and analysed available CCTV footage.
They established that a crowd of over 200 people had attacked police shortly before 2.45pm. A number of officers were injured and taken to hospital by ambulance. A water cannon was deployed, and police were give authorisation to deploy baton guns.
One of the baton gunners said the crowd were attacking at an extremely close range and he believed they were attempting to overrun police lines in order to attack the Short Strand area.
He heard the police public address system being used to warn that AEPs would be used if the violence continued, and saw a nearby officer falling to the ground having been struck by a missile.
He then saw a male throwing a large piece of masonry at the police shield line. The officer discharged an AEP round, which struck the male on the lower leg.
Another officer said he had heard a police radio transmission warning that the water cannon was proving ineffective. Shortly afterwards, police lines came under attack on two sides and several officers were injured.
Several officers were injured as police were attacked on two sides.
Having heard the police public address system being used to warn the crowd that AEP rounds would be discharged if the violence continued, the officer said he saw a male approaching police lines with a piece of heavy masonry. He then discharged an AEP round, which struck this person on the lower leg.
Shortly afterwards, the same officer fired another round at a male he had seen throwing missiles at police on two previous occasions. The round struck the male on the thigh.
Another officer who was in a police unit attempting to advance along Castlereagh Street recalled seeing a group of rioters in masks charging at police lines with a large steel fence panel which was then thrown at officers from “point blank range.”
He also saw a large concrete block being thrown at police underneath their shields, striking an officer on his lower legs.
Another male then approached police lines with a piece of masonry in both hands, one of which he threw at police. As he prepared to throw the second, the officer said he discharged an AEP which struck him on the foot.
Officers also reported that rioters were using masonry carried in wheelie bins to attack police, and said that police who moved in to remove a barricade which had been placed across the road came under heavy attack.
Rioters used wheelie bins to carry masonry used to attack police.
An AEP gunner said the intensity of the violence was such that he feared these officers were at risk of sustaining serious injury. He then discharged an AEP at a male he saw bending down to pick up a heavy piece of masonry with both hands. The round missed its target and hit the road.
Another officer who was close to the junction of Tamery Pass and Castlereagh Street said his unit had came under attack from both the front and rear. After identifying a male who had thrown several large pieces of masonry at police, the officer discharged an AEP round, which missed its target and struck a wall behind.
By 5.35pm, the intensity of the violence had subsided and authority to deploy with AEP rounds was withdrawn. By that stage six rounds had been discharged, four of which were recorded as having hit their intended targets,.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that the use of baton rounds was justified given the threat posed to officers. He said officers’ accounts of what had happened had been corroborated by CCTV footage of the disorder.
“The decision to issue, deploy and discharge AEPs was lawful and in accordance with existing legislation and training guidelines,” said Dr Maguire.