Published Date: 14.09.2007
The Police Ombudsman has praised a police officer who "did the right thing" by reporting a colleague who hit a man in the face while the man was restrained in handcuffs.
The PSNI Sergeant reported his concerns to senior officers after watching CCTV footage of the police constable (Officer A) hitting the young man during an incident at Strand Road in Derry/Londonderry on 4 February 2005. The man had previously been arrested for his involvement in a fight outside a nearby pub. The Police Service of Northern Ireland subsequently referred the incident to the Police Ombudsman's Office for independent investigation.
During their investigation, Police Ombudsman investigators had the CCTV footage of the incident forensically enhanced. The footage showed Officer A digging his knees into the chest of the young man as he lay on his back on the ground. It also showed the same officer pulling the man along the street by his ear, before hitting him in the face while he was restrained in handcuffs and offering no resistance to the officers.
Speaking after the conclusion of her investigation, the Police Ombudsman Mrs Nuala O'Loan, said: "This was an unprovoked and unnecessary attack. "The CCTV footage shows a young man being subjected to a number of different forms of assault. Other police officers and civilian witnesses provided evidence that they too had seen the man being struck by the officer." A file was sent from the Police Ombudsman's Office to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), which considered the evidence and directed that the officer should be prosecuted for assault. The charge has since been dropped as Officer A, who is originally from the Republic of Ireland, has resigned from the PSNI police and moved back to the Republic and, therefore, outside the jurisdiction.
Mrs O'Loan praised the Sergeant, who reported his concerns after spotting the incident on closed circuit TV footage submitted by Officer A as part of a crime file. "I think the Sergeant deserves great credit for raising the matter with the appropriate police authorities. Behaviour of the kind displayed during this incident does a disservice to the police service. The officer who reported it, as well as those who provided evidence, acted with a great deal of integrity and professionalism."
As well as analysing the CCTV footage, Police Ombudsman investigators interviewed all the police officers who were involved in the incident. They also seized police documentation, and interviewed a number of civilian witnesses. The CCTV footage shows an altercation between two young men outside a bar on the Strand Road at about 1am on Friday 4 February 2005. One punches the other in the face, causing him to collapse onto the ground where he lies outstretched for several minutes before struggling to get up again, apparently unsteady and dazed following the blow.
The CCTV operator informed police about the incident, and within two minutes officers arrived at the scene. The perpetrator of the assault ran off and was chased by the officers, but was eventually caught after falling to the ground when a pub doorman blocked his path. As he was lying on his back, Officer A dropped on top of him so that his knees connected with the man's chest apparently with considerable force. The man "was offering no resistance or violence when the force was applied". This was supported by the account of the other officer involved in the chase. Officer A, however, maintained that he feared an imminent assault as the man was tense and had clenched his fists. The CCTV footage then shows Officer A and another officer lifting the man to his feet before taking him towards a police car. As they did so, Officer A is seen to grab the man by his ear and pull him towards the car.
He later told Police Ombudsman investigators that the man had been kicking out at him, but this is at odds with the CCTV footage and the account of the other officer who escorted the man. The Police Ombudsman's report comments: "This method of restraint and escort is outside the bounds of police training and it was considered that this use of force was unnecessary and disproportionate." Officer A and his colleague then escorted the man to another police vehicle, holding an arm each. The man offered no resistance. Officers handcuffed the man to the rear, as another officer moved equipment from the rear seat to the boot. At this point, apparently without provocation, Officer A raised his right hand directly upwards and struck [the detained man] to the face. It is unclear whether this was a punch or an open-handed strike, but the video evidence, later enhanced, suggests that it was an "open-handed strike to the nose area," states the Police Ombudsman's report. "It is the opinion of the Police Ombudsman's Office that this strike was totally without justification." None of the officers present, with the exception of Officer A, offered any justification for the strike.
The CCTV footage was also submitted for review by the PSNI's Public Order trainers, who returned a report challenging the "necessity, justification and proportionality of the force used by [Officer A]" during the arrest. Mrs O'Loan said that "despite the best efforts of the Police Ombudsman's Office, the PPS and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, this officer did not appear at court to answer the charge of assault." She added that the PSNI had acted correctly in referring the case for independent investigation by the Police Ombudsman's Office and said her investigators had received "full co-operation" from the PSNI during their enquiries. "Although Officer A escaped prosecution, I am glad - now that he has resigned from the police - that there is no prospect of him repeating behaviour which could only serve to undermine public confidence in the police service," added Mrs O'Loan.