Published Date: 03.04.2014
A licensed gun club run by officers of the Belfast Harbour Police has been wound up, after a Police Ombudsman investigation found inadequate processes for monitoring weapons and ammunition.
The Chief Officer of Belfast Harbour Police asked the Police Ombudsman to investigate after unaccounted for ammunition was found in the possession of a Belfast Harbour Police officer.
The investigation found that, on a number of occasions until at least 2007, but not after 2009, practice shoots by the Belfast Harbour Police Gun Club had taken place at the same time as the force’s official firearms training.
Gun club weapons and ammunition stored in same armoury as police weapons.
The investigation also found that gun club weapons and ammunition were stored in the same armoury as official police weapons within the Harbour Police premises at the Belfast Port Operations Centre.
Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire said: “This created an obvious potential for official police armaments to become mixed up with guns and ammunition privately owned by Gun Club members.
“Clearly this was inappropriate. It is vital that there are stringent accounting mechanisms to keep track of police weaponry and ammunition, as these will inevitably form part of any investigation into the use of a firearm by the Harbour Police. Any inaccuracies have the potential to frustrate and compromise investigations and due legal process.”
The inadequacies in the armaments accounting practices of the Harbour Police came to light during a Police Ombudsman investigation, launched after a police officer was found to have been in possession of unauthorised ammunition on police premises.
On 12 April 2012, a routine check by the Harbour Police of its weapons and ammunition established that a police firearm and associated ammunition were missing.
Further enquiries showed that a Harbour Police officer had signed out the weapon and ammunition, but had failed to properly check them back in on the firearms accounting register.
In an effort to find the missing items, Belfast Harbour Police officers opened the officer’s locker and found a quantity of ammunition. It was later established that the officer was authorised to have been in possession of all the ammunition, except six rounds.
The missing police firearm was later found in the police armoury and all official ammunition was accounted for.
When interviewed by Police Ombudsman investigators, the officer said the unauthorised rounds were likely to be from Gun Club stocks and he believed that the Firearms Certificate for the Harbour Police Gun Club entitled him to be in possession of them.
He believed he had obtained the rounds in 2007 during a joint Gun Club practice session and official Harbour Police firearms training, but denied having ever been in possession of the ammunition while on police duty. He accepted, however, that the rounds should not have been stored in his police locker.
A file was sent to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) at the completion of the Police Ombudsman’s investigation, and the PPS subsequently directed that the officer should not be prosecuted in respect of any criminal offences.
The Police Ombudsman subsequently recommended that the officer should be disciplined for breaching Harbour Police guidelines regarding the storage of unauthorised ammunition on police premises, and for failing to follow procedures for accounting for police armaments. These recommendations were accepted and implemented by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, who oversee the Harbour Police.
In addition, the Police Ombudsman made a number of recommendations regarding Harbour Police armaments. These included:
That the Harbour Police take immediate steps to ensure official police munitions are stored separately from Gun Club weapons and ammunition.
That a detailed check be made of all munitions in the police armoury, so that a full inventory could be drawn up.
Those Harbour Police officers with personal protection weapons be provided with personal gun safes.
That strict limitations be imposed on access to the police armoury, and that any access to the armoury be electronically recorded.
These recommendations were acted upon by the force’s Chief Officer.
The Police Ombudsman also recommended that the Chief Constable of the PSNI should review whether there was a continuing need for a Harbour Police Gun Club sanctioned to store privately owned weapons on police premises.
In addition, the Chief Officer of Belfast Harbour Police requested the Chief Constable of the PSNI to revoke the Gun Club’s firearms licence. The PSNI subsequently recovered the Club’s weapons and ammunition and arrangements were made for their disposal.
The Harbour Police officer who was investigated for unauthorised possession of ammunition also voluntarily surrendered the firearms licence for the Gun Club, which was then wound up.