Police urged to arrest rioters at scene as judge dismisses CCTV evidence
Police should consider arresting suspects at the scene of riots rather than relying on video evidence to secure convictions, it has been claimed.
The comments came after it emerged in a Belfast court that a man charged with rioting and throwing missiles at a Catholic church in the city was acquitted when a judge was not satisfied by the standard of evidence presented by police.
The PSNI had relied on video evidence and statements from officers but the accused denied being present during the disorder and denied charges of riotous behaviour and attempted criminal damage to St Matthew's church in east Belfast on St Patrick's Day.
In yesterday's court case, the man police alleged was 20-year-old Gary Kirkwood was part of a hooded group, and although it had no facial identification the PSNI took the case to court.
A police witness said he was identifiable by "clothing and muscles – he has quite a distinctive build – and also the way he walks."
CCTV footage was played of the incident and a separate street gathering earlier the same evening which Kirkwood was said to have attended.
Although no facial identification was made, police claimed he was one of those involved based on mannerisms, build and clothes.
Kirkwood denied being present at any stage during the disorder.
Defence barrister Sean Mullan argued that the police evidence in the case was unreliable.
During cross-examination he suggested that two officers had provided "almost 100% identical" statements, complete with the same grammatical error.
"This wasn't an independent or fair purported identification of Gary Kirkwood at any stage," he contended. Despite police insisting a proper process was followed, Mr Mullan sought to have the case against his client thrown out.
Ruling on the application, District Judge Amanda Henderson said she had reviewed all statements and CCTV evidence.
"While there's no dispute the person in the earlier footage and stills is the defendant, the court is then being asked to extend what is a clothing and body description of the defendant to later criminal activity," she said. Dismissing both charges, Judge Henderson confirmed: "I cannot be satisfied to the high criminal standard, beyond all reasonable doubt, that that person is one and the same as the defendant."
After the case, Alliance Party justice spokesman Stewart Dickson said: "The police need to either ensure their evidence-gathering is of a standard to guarantee a conviction in appropriate circumstances or else change tactics and that may mean they will have to move in and arrest people on the ground."
DUP MLA Paul Givan said: "There have been successful prosecutions in the past where the police have used evidence-gathering techniques with arrests made later. This has included cases where individuals have sought to disguise their identity through covering their face. This case demonstrates the problems that exist with this technique.
"There are obvious operational issues in the policing of public disorder and decisions will have to be made by officers on the ground at the time. It is important the gathering of video evidence should not be used to the total exclusion of police operations where those guilty of public order offences are arrested at the scene."
A police source said judgments were often made by officers about whether an attempt to effect an arrest will make a situation worse or if gathering evidence is a more beneficial way to go.
A police spokesman said: "As part of our criminal justice strategy for public events the police service takes a robust and proportionate approach to anyone engaging in criminal activity or putting the community at risk. While making arrests is one of our key priorities, keeping officers and the public safe in the middle of a public order situation is a key consideration and responsibility. Where arrests at the time of any offences being committed are not possible, evidence is gathered in such a way that we can present the strongest possible case in court."