Stormont search : Police Ombudsman statement

Published Date: 01.08.2004

Police Ombudsman investigations into complaints about the PSNI search of the Sinn Féin offices at Parliament Buildings in Stormont on the morning of October 4 2002 have concluded. The Police Ombudsman said she has found no evidence to substantiate allegations that the searches were 'politically motivated' but has also said the scale and manner of the police operation was totally disproportionate.

And in a related matter, the Police Ombudsman has said she plans to raise with the Chief Constable the PSNI's procedures in relation to carrying automatic weapons during house searches.

The Police Ombudsman received six complaints relating to the police search of an Office at Stormont that morning. These included allegations that the search of the offices had been politically motivated; that police had alerted the media prior to the search and that the search itself had been excessive. An allegation was made that people were not permitted to enter the room to be searched prior to the search. Two people also alleged that police officers had assaulted them during the search.

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan has said her investigation focused on the complaints which she received:

"The search of the Sinn Féin offices at Stormont and the political events which followed have attracted a lot of general comment and speculation. My investigation, however, involved a search for evidence in relation to the allegations made to this Office."

35 people were interviewed. They included police officers, Assembly and Parliament Buildings staff, Sinn Féin representatives and the Justice of the Peace who signed the warrant to allow the search to take place. PSNI intelligence files, 'control logs' and other documentation were examined as were broadcast and security videos.

Complaint One - The decision to search an office at Stormont

The Police Ombudsman said she has found no evidence to suggest that the search was politically motivated, or that it was designed to damage Sinn Féin and the peace process. The search of an office was part of normal police process following the search of a home in circumstances such as this. No proper consideration was given by police to the fact that they were searching the buildings of a legislative assembly. This was a significant failing by police.

Investigators established that PSNI officers had earlier that morning carried out searches at a number of locations in the greater Belfast area in relation to alleged serious criminal offences under investigation. As a result of those searches, the PSNI decided that it would also be necessary to search a specific desk used by one particular individual, and the area immediately adjacent to that desk, in the Sinn Féin offices at Parliament Buildings.

That decision to conduct the search at Stormont was made by the Detective Chief Superintendent who was overseeing the whole operation. An application was then made to a Justice of the Peace for the necessary warrant.

Police Ombudsman investigators have viewed the intelligence available to the PSNI that morning and have interviewed several people, including the officer who took the decision to initiate the search and the Justice of the Peace who granted the warrant under schedule 5 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

"On the basis of the intelligence available, I can say that the Detective Chief Superintendent's decision to seek a warrant authorising a search of a specific desk in the Sinn Féin offices was reasonable, proportionate and legal. The Justice of the Peace who issued the warrant also thought this. We have not uncovered any evidence that the police decision-making was influenced inappropriately by any other officers within the PSNI, by politicians or by any other parties", said Mrs O'Loan

Complaint Two - The Presence of the Media

The Police Ombudsman's investigators did not uncover any evidence that police alerted the media to the imminent search at Stormont.

While an Ulster Television camera crew was present and filmed the early stages of the search operation, the Police Ombudsman's Office has found no evidence that the broadcasters had been pre-warned by any police officer. UTV has confirmed that they did not receive advance notice from the police.

Complaint Three - The conduct of the search

The Police Ombudsman has substantiated the complaint that the scale and manner in which the search operation was carried out at Stormont was disproportionate and unnecessary to the circumstances.

The Police Ombudsman has concluded that the search could have been adequately conducted with a much smaller and less obtrusive police presence. There was no necessity for the presence at Stormont of the large number of officers who attended. There should have been prior consideration by police of the fact that the premises to be searched were contained within the Legislative Assembly for Northern Ireland.

"I welcome the Chief Constable's early decision to apologise for the heavy-handed nature of this operation. He was right to do so, said Mrs O'Loan.

At approximately 8.30am that morning a team of PSNI officers arrived at Stormont Parliament Buildings to secure the area outside the Sinn Féin second floor offices prior to the planned search. They were met by security and administrative staff from Parliament Buildings, who refused them entry to the offices until a suitable search warrant had been produced.

The Parliament Buildings staff allowed PSNI officers to identify the location of the Sinn Féin offices, but not to go inside. Four PSNI officers then made their way to the offices in question and stood outside the rooms. They were accompanied by Parliament Building staff.

Once the search warrant had arrived and been examined by an Assembly official, three plain clothes and one uniformed officer were admitted to one of the Sinn Féin offices in order to conduct the search The search lasted some 50 minutes, from 9.45am until 10.35am. One Sinn Féin member was permitted to watch the search.

The search involved two teams. Initially the extent of the search to be conducted was not known. Since the PSNI did not know exactly which office or offices they might need to search prior to their arrival at Stormont, they arranged for a full search team to be present. An initial team of ten officers was sent up to Stormont. They were relieved by another team of around 15 officers, who had had specific training in search techniques, at approximately 10am. During the change over period 25 officers had been present. It is regrettable that a specially trained search team was not organised in the first instance, as this would significantly have reduced the number of officers present at Stormont on that occasion.

The officers in both teams had been drafted in from public order units, which had been on operational duty elsewhere in Belfast. They were therefore wearing public order uniforms consisting of blue overalls and peaked caps. In the circumstances of a search of the Legislative Assembly it would clearly have been better had the search been conducted only by plain clothes officers.

A thorough but proportionate search lasting 50 minutes was carried out by police.

Complaint Four - Refusal by police to allow two people to enter the officers before the search was conducted

At approximately 9.10am police officers prevented a male and a female member of Sinn Féin from entering their office. The Police Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint that police officers did not have the right to prevent the workers from entering their offices prior to the search warrant: the Police Ombudsman is satisfied that the police officers' actions were legitimate and necessary to preserve the integrity of the search scene pending the arrival of the search warrant.

Complaint Five Assault allegation

The Police Ombudsman received a complaint from a Sinn Féin party worker that police officers assaulted him by slamming a door on his leg repeatedly and pushing him in such a way as to cause hot tea to spill over him.

The Police Ombudsman investigated the complaint and submitted a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions who directed that no charges be brought against officers. The Police Ombudsman concluded that there was insufficient evidence to warrant disciplinary actions against any officer.

One colleague of the complainant provided a statement to support his allegation, however another independent witness to the incident saw no physical contact between the police officer and the complainant.

Police Ombudsman investigators also recorded that while the complainant claimed that the slamming of the door and the spilling of the hot tea caused him considerable pain and bruising, there was no medical evidence to support this assertion. There was no other evidence to support the complaint

The Police Ombudsman also noted that the complainant provided a statement to the Assembly Commission which conducted an internal investigation into the PSNI search. That statement differed significantly from the one provided to the Police Ombudsman and made no reference to a door having been slammed repeatedly on the complainant's leg.

Complaint Six Assault allegation

The Police Ombudsman said she did not find evidence to support a complaint from a female member of staff that police officers grabbed her by the arm and restrained her.

The Police Ombudsman established that the police had lawfully refused the person access to the search location. When she attempted to gain access police stopped her from so doing. Under Section 114 of the Terrorism Act 2000 police were entitled to use 'reasonable force' to prevent access to the room if deemed necessary. There was no evidence that the force used was disproportionate or unreasonable. There was neither witness evidence nor medical evidence to support the complainant's allegation.

House Search conducted on the morning of the Stormont raid

In a separate but related matter, the Police Ombudsman has recommended that the Chief Constable introduce a policy in relation to the carrying of guns during house searches.

The move follows a complaint made to her Office on behalf of a woman whose home was searched at five o'clock that morning. The woman complained that police used 'rapid entry' and, although children were present, openly displayed automatic weapons.

Mrs O'Loan said that officers had not breached their own instructions in deciding to use rapid entry in order to preserve and secure any evidence and in carrying their weapons.

"In the circumstances of this case I am satisfied that the police should have conducted a risk assessment in deciding whether to carry such weapons, which would have included the fact that young children would be present in the house. Police should have taken measures to minimise as much as possible any potential alarm or distress.

"There appears to be no clear PSNI policy regarding the carrying of automatic weapons during search operations and therefore no officer can be found to have contravened any policy.

However I am strongly of the opinion that there needs to be such a policy and it is an issue I plan to raise with the Chief Constable," she said.


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