Published Date: 15.12.2011
The Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson has found that the actions of a policeman in shooting dead the driver of a stolen car were critically flawed. These included the officer drawing his gun at an early stage, placing himself in front of the vehicle and remaining there.
PDF: Full Public Statement
Mr Hutchinson found that the officer's actions in discharging two shots created significant risk of further casualties.
The police officer shot dead 23 year old Steven Colwell, in an incident in Ballynahinch on Easter Sunday, 16 April 2006. Mr Colwell was the driver of a stolen BMW which was facing the officer with its engine revving, in what appeared to be an attempt to escape a vehicle check point, having ignored the officer's commands to stop the car.
Mr. Hutchinson said that while Mr Colwell's actions were reckless, the police officer's actions played 'the greater part' in the tragedy and said that he had grave concerns that the Constable was acting in such a role that day.
A Police Ombudsman team, including experts in traffic collision and in ballistics, was called to the scene of the shooting, which was outside Ballynahinch Police Station on the main road through the town. They began an investigation which included a forensic examination of the scene, photographing and 'mapping' the vehicles, speaking to police officers and more than 30 members of the public, listening to police radio transmissions and examining other evidence.
The three police officers who came on duty that morning in Ballynahinch had been briefed about the theft of a silver BMW, a 'creeper' burglary and about a general threat from Dissident Republicans. Shortly before 11am, as they monitored the police radio, they heard discussion about the movement of the stolen car. By 11:10 am they heard it was at Seaforde, seven miles away.
The officers believed that the car was likely to be travelling towards Ballynahinch and decided to establish a vehicle checkpoint outside the station. They brought with them a 'stinger' - a device with spikes designed to safely deflate the tyres of a moving vehicle.
Police Officer One stood in the centre of the road and began to stop traffic, whilst his two colleagues took up their positions. The Officer said that it had been his plan to stop the stolen car under the guise of a routine enquiry and while engaging the driver in conversation, reach inside and grab the ignition keys.
Within a few minutes, one of the police officers caught sight of the BMW in the queue of traffic stopping at the checkpoint. One of his colleagues shouted to Police Officer One, who then ran towards the car, shouting at the driver to stop. Steven Colwell turned the car out of the queue of traffic but the driver of a car, which had been following it earlier moved his vehicle to block the BMW's escape. Mr. Colwell then reversed into the car which had been in front of him previously.
By that stage Police Officer One had moved into position and was standing in front of the BMW, aiming his gun at Steven Colwell. The police officer shouted commands for the driver to stop and for the occupants to get out. The engine revved and the car lurched forward with its tyres screeching. Police Officer One fired two shots. The first went through the windscreen and the second through the driver's window.
Mr Colwell got out of the car and collapsed. Despite the efforts of medical personnel, he was pronounced dead at the scene. A Post Mortem examination established that he died from injuries caused by the first shot. It also found a level of the drug Ecstasy and a tranquiliser in his blood which 'could have affected his ability to control' the car.
Police Officer One said that he could not get out of the car's way in time and had believed his only option was to open fire if he were to save his life and the lives of members of the public. He said that after he fired the first shot the car continued straight at him so, without moving position, he fired a second shot. The car lost speed, rolled into a driveway and came to a rest.
Many of the 30 witness statements made by members of the public support the police actions. Some told Police Ombudsman Investigators that they were alarmed by the danger presented by the BMW driver.
Forensic evidence contradicted the officer's statement.
Forensic evidence, however, contradicts the police officer's account of what happened. It shows that the front wheels of the car were turned towards the opposite side of the road and the car turned left, away from the police officer. It also shows the officer moved to his left before discharging the second shot through the driver's side window, as the car passed close to him.
There is no evidence that the lives of any pedestrian or of the other two police officers were at risk.
The Police Ombudsman investigation found that Police Officer One escalated the situation at an early stage by drawing his gun:
"Having found himself directly in front of the vehicle with his handgun drawn, the police officer chose to stand his ground, aim his pistol directly at Steven Colwell and shout for him to stop the car. His decision to remain in that position allowed little or no room for an alternative outcome in the event that Mr Colwell failed to comply with these instructions.
While Steven Colwell's actions were reckless, the critically flawed judgements and actions of Police Officer One played a greater part in Mr Colwell's death, " said Mr Hutchinson.
It was whilst examining Police Officer Ones' personnel records that issues about his health and his previous conduct as a police officer came to light. The Officer mounted a successful legal challenge, which prevented the Chief Constable from releasing further information to the Police Ombudsman's Office.
The Police Ombudsman investigation was unable to establish to what extent, if any, Police Office One's medical history or previous conduct impacted on events in Ballynahinch on 16 April 2006.
"As a result of the information we gathered during our investigation, I had grave concerns about the appropriateness of this officer's deployment as a front line response officer that day. I provided that information to the Chief Constable to allow him to review the officer's suitability to be armed and engaged in direct contact with the public. This was an issue for the PSNI to determine," said Mr Hutchinson.
Decision to establish check point was high risk and ill-considered.
The Police Ombudsman investigation also said that the decision by the three police officers to establish a vehicle checkpoint at that time and place was high risk and ill considered:
"I accept that the road outside the police station was a recognised location for conducting such checkpoints. I am also aware that the police officers had little time available to organise themselves. However, I believe that to establish such a check point on a busy Easter Sunday morning at a location, where one church service was about to start and another due to end, required a more careful assessment of the risks and options," said Mr Hutchinson
The Police Ombudsman said that inadequate 'call handling' by the police earlier that morning had drawn a family into the incident and put their lives at risk. At 11:08 am police received a phone call from a woman who was related to the owner of the stolen car. The caller said that she, her husband and their child were in a car, which was following the BMW. The woman stayed on the line for two minutes and 45 seconds.
"While I accept that this call helped police establish the location and movements of the BMW, the police did not discourage this couple, who may have considered themselves to have had the tacit approval of police to continue this pursuit. There were then two cars travelling at speed towards Ballynhinch, one of which was stolen and the other containing occupants with considerably heightened levels of anxiety," he said.