Published Date: 02.09.2003
A major investigation by the Police Ombudsman's office has concluded that police were fully justified in discharging 60 plastic baton rounds and 10 live rounds during serious disorder in east Belfast in June last year.
The baton rounds and shots were discharged during a three and a half hour period of intense rioting by Loyalists in the Lower Newtownards Road area between 11pm on June 3 and 2.30am on June 4, 2002.
Shots were fired at police on five separate occasions and officers were also targeted with blast bombs, fireworks, petrol bombs, catapults and other missiles.
A total of 19 police officers were injured - one was shot in the leg by a Loyalist gunman. Of the 60 plastic baton rounds fired, 45 were reported to have hit their intended targets.
The ten gunshots discharged by a police officer were aimed at a gunman who had fired two bursts of automatic gunfire at police lines.
The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, said there was no doubt that the use of baton rounds was essential given the intensity of the unrest, which had posed a "serious and immediate risk to life". Indeed, she noted that officers had shown considerable restraint.
"Taking into account the level and extent of violence directed at the police, and the large scale of the disorder, there were many occasions where police would have been justified in discharging baton rounds, yet did not do so", she said.
"There were also several occasions where police sighted gunmen and did not open fire, and may have been justified in doing so."
Mrs O'Loan pointed out that it is now almost a year since police last discharged a baton round in Northern Ireland - the last was fired on 11 September last year. "It is encouraging that we have not had a recurrence of violence on this scale and, as a result, that police have not required to use baton rounds," she said.
"I am also pleased to see that when the use of baton rounds is necessary, the PSNI now have much tighter controls and reporting mechanisms."
The rioting by Loyalists on the evening of June 3 and 4 followed major disorder earlier in the day when rival Loyalist and Nationalist crowds, numbering almost 1,000 people in total, clashed on the Mountpottinger Road. 120 police officers and 300 soldiers were deployed to help maintain order.
A number of police units reported that shots were fired from the Nationalist side during this rioting, but there were no reported injuries.
During their investigation of the night's events, Police Ombudsman investigators interviewed police commanders, senior officers and officers involved in the disturbances, and also reviewed police radio transmission tapes, police and army video footage and forensic evidence, including bullet strike marks on buildings in the area.
Enquiries were also made at local hospitals and attempts made to interview non-police witnesses. Information and assistance was sought from local MLAs.
While praising police for their handling of what had been a very dangerous public order situation, the Police Ombudsman expressed concern about the procedures adopted by two officers when accounting for the issuing of baton guns and rounds. Recommendations have been made to the Chief Constable regarding this matter, and have been accepted.
Mrs O'Loan also reiterated that while circumstances will not always allow police to issue a public warning before using plastic bullet guns, the reasons for failing to do so should always be accurately recorded.
Copies of the Police Ombudsman's report have now been forwarded to the Secretary of State, the Chief Constable and the Policing Board.