Belfast Telegraph

Police officers 'reluctant' to voice fears over safety of their cars

By Joanne Sweeney

The majority of police officers are reluctant to voice their safety concerns over driving armoured vehicles at speed in emergencies, an inquest has heard.

The safe use of armoured Mitsubishi Shoguns came under the spotlight at the investigation into how four police officers died as theirs burst into a "fireball" after it crashed six years ago.

Constable James Magee - the 27-year-old driver of the 4x4 involved in the crash - was described by a sergeant yesterday as an officer "who would never drive recklessly or put the lives of others at risk".

He and his three fellow officers - Kevin Gorman (24), Declan Greene (39) and Kenny Irvine (30) - were on a emergency blue light run answering a call for back-up when the vehicle crashed into the wall of a low bridge on the Warrenpoint to Rostrevor road.

Sergeant Jill Nicholson, who had requested the back-up, broke down in tears when she confirmed that by the time she tried to radio that the emergency was under control, the police vehicle had already crashed.

The frantic attempts to try and rescue the four men proved futile as police and bystanders were forced back for fear of the vehicle exploding and rounds of ammunition going off due to the intense heat.

However, the continuing traumatic toll on all those officers who attended the crash scene was evident at the Belfast inquest as key witnesses spoke of what happened that night and their working practices regarding responding to blue light calls.

Police officers gave evidence of not being aware of the speed restrictions recommended in a force order and safety advice on using the rear escape hatch relating to armoured Shoguns until after the accident.

A part-time officer, who was praised for his "exceptional bravery" in trying to save his colleagues, spoke of the "pandemonium" in the early hours of November 23, 2008.

Constable Gary Balchin used his baton, a fire extinguisher and at one point considered using his service weapon to shoot at the door handle to get into the car.

"There was a sense of helplessness at the scene," he said in his statement.

"I was in a state of total shock and disbelief at what had happened and at one point I became hysterical.

"I later sat in a patrol car and just screamed."

He spoke of how he had advised the driver of the Mitsubishi Shogun he was travelling in to slow down as the road was very winding and slippery and that he had no confidence in the safety of the vehicle driven at speed.

When asked if his was a generally held view by the solicitor representing Mr Magee's family, he answered: "I believe that it's still widely held by the majority of police officers. but for obvious reasons they don't speak out."

The hearing continues.

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