Published Date: 13.12.2018
Police failings compromised the fairness of an investigation into off-duty police officers involved in a fight with members of the public in Coleraine, the Police Ombudsman has found.
Dr Michael Maguire found that three off-duty officers involved in the fight, and another who provided a statement about what happened, were not properly challenged about inconsistencies in their accounts.
A delay in submitting a file to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) also meant the officers could not be considered for prosecution.
The PPS asked the Police Ombudsman to independently investigate the police handling of the incident, which happened in Coleraine on 11 April 2015.
The fight began in the toilets of a pub and continued in an alley behind it after those involved were asked to leave the premises.
Police arrived after a number of 999 calls were made by the off-duty officers. Four members of the public were arrested at the scene, and another two in subsequent weeks. They were later charged with public order offences and a file recommending their prosecution was submitted to the PPS.
The off-duty police officers were initially treated as witnesses but were interviewed as potential suspects after counter-allegations were made against them.
Investigating officer failed to challenge inconsistencies and was a month late in submitting a file to the PPS.
Police Ombudsman investigators found that the investigating officer failed to make full use of CCTV and mobile phone footage to challenge inconsistencies in their accounts. In addition, he was a month late in submitting a file to the PPS, which meant the officers could not be considered for prosecution.
When asked about these failings, the officer blamed the complexity of the case and denied having shown any favouritism towards the officers. He explained that he had mistakenly believed that the PPS, and not himself, was responsible for completing a form to allow for the late submission of a file.
One of the officers involved in the fight was also asked why he had accessed police computer records about the incident without authorisation. He replied that he had been checking times for his statement.
After completing their enquiries, Police Ombudsman investigators submitted files to the PPS. It directed that the four off-duty officers should not be prosecuted for attempting to pervert the course of justice, and that neither they nor the investigating officer should not be prosecuted for misconduct in public office.
It also suggested that while the test for prosecution had been met in relation to the officer who improperly accessed police records, a disciplinary sanction would be more appropriate.
Dr Maguire recommended that the PSNI should discipline the officer, and also recommended disciplinary action against the investigating officer for failings which compromised the fairness and impartiality of his enquiries. The PSNI implemented both recommendations.
Dr Maguire’s recommendation that the four off-duty officers should be disciplined over inconsistencies in their accounts of the fight was not implemented by the PSNI.
However, the police did discipline the four officers for inappropriate off-duty conduct.