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Police Ombudsman identifies 'clear shortcoming' in bomb attack investigation

Published 18/12/2015

Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire said there was a failure to help detectives investigating the blast
Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire said there was a failure to help detectives investigating the blast

Four police intelligence officers should be disciplined for their failure to pass on information about a bomb attack on a colleague, a watchdog has recommended.

Constable Paedar Heffron suffered serious injuries when the undercar booby trap device was detonated near Randalstown in Co Antrim five years ago.

Even though there was insufficient evidence to support an allegation that the attack could have been prevented, Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire said there was a failure to help detectives investigating the blast.

Four officers, two detective superintendents and two detective sergeants, from the PSNI's C3 unit should be disciplined, the Ombudsman said.

"I acknowledge that the information the detectives sought did not lead to significant new evidence," Dr Maguire said.

"Despite this, the delay in waiting to asses this information lost momentum for the investigation.

"Police policy requires that investigators are provided with intelligence at the earliest opportunity.

"They are the people best placed to develop lines of enquiry that may translate into evidence, which could otherwise be lost by delay.

"This case demonstrates clear shortcoming in this regard."

Constable Heffron, a catholic and fluent Irish speaker, lost a leg as a result of the dissident republican explosion and now uses a wheelchair.

He had been on his way to work at Woodbourne police station in west Belfast when the bomb exploded about a mile from his home on Milltown Road in Randalstown on January 8 2010.

The Ombudsman's investigation was launched after a complaint from a man who claimed police had been warned of the likelihood of an attack at "Milltown" several weeks earlier.

Investigators spoke with the informant, who said he had receive a text message about the impending attack and passed it to police.

He did not save the texts and did not have any other notes or records from the time, it was noted.

But, to the best of his memory, the informant claimed his message read: "Attack on police officers- Milltown - urgent," the Ombudsman's office revealed.

Although he believed the "Milltown" mentioned in the original text was in west Belfast, he did not specify this to police.

The informant alleged that following the attack on Constable Heffron, police revealed to him they had "missed out on Randalstown" when checking areas known as Milltown.

But the Police Ombudsman investigators also spoke to the police officer responsible for handling the intelligence.

He said he had recorded the content of the text verbatim before deleting it.

The officer said the text specified Milltown in Andersonstown, west Belfast, and that he had issued a warning to all police in the area.

He rejected claims police had said they "missed out on Randalstown".

Instead, the officer claimed it was the informant who had made contact to apologise for incorrectly interpreting "Milltown" as the area in west Belfast.

Having considered other documentation the Ombudsman concluded that on the balance of probabilities, police were told the impending attack was to be in Belfast, not Randalstown.

But during the course of their investigation, Ombudsman staff became concerned that detectives were not getting the help they needed from PSNI's C3 branch which has primary responsibility for receiving and managing intelligence.

A number of senior police officers within the unit, including several superintendents were interviewed.

Two officers said they had supplied information to the detectives within weeks of the attack while another said he believed information had been provided.

Dr Maguire said C3 has been unable to provide any documentation or other evidence to confirm that detectives received the information they had been requesting.

He concluded that a delay of more than two years in providing detectives with information, and to then make it available a matter of weeks after hearing of his involvement, was not acceptable.

Anne Connolly, chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which oversees the PSNI, described the report as "disturbing reading".

She said: "There are serious questions arising from the conclusions, and specifically in relation to the arrangements for the sharing of intelligence, which the board will want to discuss with the chief constable.

"The wider public will find it hard to understand the failings in this case and the board will be seeking assurance from the chief constable that actions have been taken to address all the shortcomings identified."

Chief constable George Hamilton and his deputy Drew Harris are expected to be questioned about the Ombudsman's findings at a specially convened Policing Board meeting next week.

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris said the report had been given careful and serious consideration.

He said: "I have consulted with colleagues in Crime Operations Department which is responsible for the management of intelligence and conducting investigations into serious crime.

"I welcome the Ombudsman's conclusion that a complaint which alleged police had been provided with information which, if acted upon, could have prevented the attack on Constable Heffron, is not substantiated.

"In relation to an additional conclusion that officers in Intelligence Branch did not supply investigating detectives from Serious Crime Branch with the information they sought, the Police Service view is that this line of enquiry was pursued and belatedly closed down but that it was not directly related to the attempted murder of Constable Heffron.

"However, the Police Service is receptive to any learning which can be gleaned from such reports. There was an administrative failing in this case in which the line of enquiry was not processed as quickly as it should have been. This issue has been addressed and resolved by a number of measures including the establishment of secure means of passing material from Intelligence Branch to Serious Crime Branch.

"It is our view that all credible lines of enquiry in this investigation, which is still open, have been pursued. I would continue to appeal for anyone with information about the bomb attack in Randalstown on January 8 2010 to come forward."

He added: "The Ombudsman recommended disciplinary sanctions against four officers. I have agreed there is a requirement for disciplinary sanctions in this case. Having reviewed the full circumstances of this investigation, I decided on an appropriate sanction for each of the detective superintendents. Disciplinary sanctions in respect of the Detective Sergeants are currently being considered."

Constable Heffron is continuing to re-build his life after the terror attack and has requested privacy, he said.

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