Drumcree baton rounds "justified": Police Ombudsman

Published Date: 24.06.2003

An investigation by the Police Ombudsman's Office into the firing of three baton rounds by police officers during disturbances following last year's parade at Drumcree has found that officers had been right to use the weapons as they faced "a serious and immediate risk to life."

The PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde asked the Police Ombudsman's Office to investigate the firing of three baton rounds during disturbances at Drumcree Bridge on Sunday afternoon, July 7, 2002. A full report on the matter has now been sent to the Chief Constable, the Secretary of State and the Policing Board.

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs. Nuala O'Loan, said the use of baton rounds in all three cases had been necessary because of the threat of serious injury or loss of life to police officers:

"I pay tribute to the courage and restraint clearly displayed by many officers. The evidence clearly demonstrates the life threatening and ferocious attack to which they were subjected, resulting in many serious injuries, including broken bones, ligament damage and facial injuries.

"The public of Northern Ireland should be grateful for these sacrifices made to maintain order. The violence of the event also demonstrates the absolute need for the baton gun or a viable alternative to it," she said. 

During their investigation, Police Ombudsman staff examined PSNI documentation, including officers' notes and statements, police radio transmissions and police video footage. They also viewed broadcast footage: two of the three discharges were captured on video. The investigators also spoke to civilian witnesses and attempted to contact others.

The violence flared as protestors tried to breach a police cordon, with officers subject to a sustained barrage of missiles and close quarter attacks using sticks, umbrellas and other weapons.

At 2pm, police on the ground requested permission from their senior officers to use baton rounds. This was initially granted but withdrawn seconds later while senior police command asked for the reasons for deployment. 

At 2.04pm, having established that officers on the ground were coming under severe attack, and that there was a likelihood of serious injury, the senior police commander granted permission.

Video evidence shows that as police tried to maintain the cordon many officers were hit by large stones and boulders, several falling to the ground after being struck.

At 2.06pm permission to use baton guns was again requested and this time was granted within seconds. After informing his baton gunners that permission had been granted, a police inspector was hit on the head with a stone and fell to the ground dazed. He was escorted by other officers to the rear of a barrier which had been erected on Drumcree bridge by the security forces. By this stage the crowd had surged forward towards police lines and the violence had intensified.

A man in a beige T-shirt was then seen advancing towards police, first of all mimicking the action of firing a gun at the officers, before picking up a large boulder and making a movement as if to throw it towards the police line. As he did so a baton gunner discharged a baton round striking the man on the arm. He was seen to drop the boulder and fall back clutching his arm.

Immediately after this another man, who can be seen on earlier footage throwing at least four missiles towards police, was seen picking up and throwing two large stones in quick succession towards police lines. The man is then seen moving towards police lines with his arm raised as if to throw another missile. The camera pans away from him momentarily and he is next seen limping back into the crowd, having apparently been struck by a plastic baton round.

Video footage also shows police officers being struck with stones, large boulders and at one stage what appears to be a tree trunk. Two officers are seen falling to the ground having been struck on the head, after which colleagues attempt to drag them back towards the barrier.

The third discharge was not captured on police or broadcast video but the police officer who fired the weapon recalled seeing another officer lying on the ground receiving treatment from a police medic as the crowd continued to throw missiles at the withdrawing police. Some of these appeared to be reaching the injured officer.

In his statement the baton gunner said he moved forward and discharged a baton round at a man who appeared to be preparing to throw a boulder. The man was struck on the upper left leg before being dragged back by other members of the crowd.

Although the discharge was not captured on video, several men matching the description given by the baton gunner are shown on video advancing towards police lines as they withdrew behind the barrier.

After firing his baton gun the officer was struck twice on the head with missiles in quick succession and fell to the ground unconscious, whereupon another officer dragged him through the large barrier to safety.

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, concluded that the discharge of the guns was consistent with police guidance, criminal law and human rights legislation.

"Given the intensity of the violence and the range of options considered and implemented by police prior to the discharge of baton rounds, officers exercised considerable restraint in a situation where their lives were often at risk," she said.


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