Published Date: 21.03.2007
The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, has said it was necessary for a police officer to shoot a man he believed was reaching for a weapon as he made his getaway after leaving a bomb in Belfast city centre.
The injured man and an accomplice were making their getaway after leaving a bomb outside the then Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) offices in nearby Upper Queen Street on 24 November 2002. The man who was shot was subsequently convicted of possessing explosives with intent to endanger life and jailed for five years.
The incident was referred to the Police Ombudsman's Office by the Chief Constable, as are all discharges of police firearms. Police Ombudsman investigators established that the police had mounted an operation in advance of an anticipated attack in Belfast. They saw two vehicles travelling in convoy, one of which was left outside the DVLA offices. The driver then got into a second car, a Vauxhall Nova, which drove into Howard Street. As the Nova reached the junction with Fisherwick Place a police team swooped. Two armed officers approached either side of the vehicle. The driver was told to put his hands where they could be seen.
Instead, officers stated that he appeared to try to pull something from the waistband area of his trousers. Fearing he was trying to reach for a gun, an officer discharged a single shot which struck the man behind his right arm and lodged in his left leg. A police car then rammed the Nova, which spun round and came to a stop. Police removed the two suspects from the vehicle.
Police Ombudsman investigators co-ordinated a full forensic examination of the scene. They analysed police documentation and radio communications, and took statements from a total of 85 witnesses, including civilians and medical personnel. The incident scene is overlooked by a nearby hotel, and telephone inquiries were made to identify potential witnesses in England, the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and New Zealand. Several civilian witnesses recalled hearing officers issue a number of warnings before a shot was discharged. Police CCTV footage was also examined but showed nothing of evidential value.
The injured man was subsequently examined by the Deputy State Pathologist, who concluded that his injuries were consistent with having been shot once from the rear to the right hand side. Paramedics who attended the scene commented on the high standard of initial first aid provided by police officers and said they were in no doubt this had saved the injured party's life.
Having reviewed the evidence, the Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, concluded that the use of live fire by police had been 'reasonable, proportionate and necessary in the circumstances'. "It was reasonable for the officer to believe that the injured party would have been armed in the circumstances," said Mrs O'Loan. After failing to comply with a number of challenges and instructions, the injured party further acted in a manner consistent with that of a person attempting to arm themselves. "No other method of control or restraint was available or practicable in order to eliminate the immediate threat. The officer had no alternative but to use his firearm."
Mrs O'Loan made a number of recommendations to police as a result of the investigation, including that the PSNI should comply fully with the Association of Chief Police Officers Manual of Guidance on the use of firearms. Mrs O'Loan recommended in particular that the PSNI should appoint Firearms Tactical Advisors and Post Incident Managers for similar future operations. She also described as inadequate the fact that the Policy Log for the operation consisted of two pages of A4 - and did not provide a full account of the options considered, decisions taken and rationale for the operation, nor of the briefings given to officers.
The PSNI have since implemented a series of recommendations made by the Police Ombudsman following the investigation. A file was supplied by the Police Ombudsman's Office to the Public Prosecution Service in March 2004. In May 2006 the PPS directed that no officer should be prosecuted in relation to the incident.