Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

The vital role of those who police the police

His investigators are quickly at the scene of an officer-involved shooting. But who is Al Hutchinson? And what does the Police Ombudsman do? Brian Rowan reports

His investigators are quickly at the scene of an officer-involved shooting. But who is Al Hutchinson? And what does the Police Ombudsman do? Brian Rowan reports

Across the world, the actions of the police are scrutinised - put under a spotlight, examined and investigated in the finest detail.

And, in spite of what some think, it is not just happening in Northern Ireland where, in the past decade or so, there have been sweeping police reforms - changes designed to achieve greater accountability in the era beyond the RUC.

In the new framework recommended by a commission headed by Chris Patten, there is now a Policing Board and the office of Police Ombudsman.

But this doesn't mean we are different; the same accountability and investigating mechanisms exist elsewhere. They just have different names.

And that same sort of fine-detail scrutiny happens day and daily, particularly in shooting incidents involving police.

There was an example of this just last weekend. You can read it in a news report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which gave details of a shooting in Edmonton in which a 17-year-old youth was killed.

He was shot by a police officer and, in Canada like here, an independent body investigates all such incidents - in this case it is the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT).

"Northern Ireland led the way in terms of independent investigation - still largely does," Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson told the Belfast Telegraph.

Hutchinson had a long career in Canadian policing before coming to the province in the post-Patten period. In Northern Ireland, he has worked as commissioner overseeing the recommended police reforms before taking up his current post.

"Increasingly, there is a requirement/recognition that police cannot investigate themselves and that's the model emerging in democratic countries across the world," he said.

The story of that incident in Edmonton was that an officer fired three shots at the teenager. Police had been responding to "several weapons and attempted robbery complaints connected to a mugging".

And in that news report by CBC, the executive director of ASIRT said the suspect came at police armed with a knife and a baseball bat. CBC reported that the name of the officer involved had not been released, but police said he had been with the force for five years.

In the Canadian province of Alberta, ASIRT is the independent body that looks at all incidents, or complaints, involving serious injury, or death, resulting from the actions of a police officer. In Northern Ireland, that role is part of the work of the Police Ombudsman.

Last Thursday, the senior director of investigations in that office, Peter O'Sullivan, contacted Hutchinson. He had news of an attempted robbery at a petrol station in east Belfast in which a man had been shot dead by an off-duty police officer.

In the hours that followed, the story emerged in a jigsaw of information pieces and detail.

Newspapers described Marc Alexander Ringland as a career criminal and it was reported that he was holding a knife to the throat of a member of staff when the officer fired, but this has yet to be confirmed by investigators.

As events unfolded in that shop on the Albertbridge Road, Ringland was shot once in the chest and died at the scene.

"The police are obliged by law to inform us of any serious event like that involving a police officer in serious injury or death," added Hutchinson. "We have a senior investigating officer who's on call 24/7, 365 (days of the year)."

There is a protocol in which the PSNI informs the Ombudsman any time a weapon is fired by one of its officers and in major critical incidents, the Ombudsman's senior director of investigations attends.

"The scene is preserved immediately," Hutchinson explained. "Witnesses are independently interviewed. We have entire control of the scene once we arrive.

"The scene is forensically examined. All evidence is seized - including all videotape that's available." The Belfast Telegraph understands there is exhaustive video coverage of the events inside the petrol station, showing the actions of Ringland and the police officer. "There is no decision to arrest (the officer)," Hutchinson said.

As his team investigates, they will have a number of key questions: What was the officer's honest belief? Was it necessary for him to draw and use his gun? Were his actions proportionate? (In other words, was there a threat to life?)

Hutchinson said the evidence would inform their conclusions and report: "The witness evidence, the forensic evidence, the video evidence." The investigation will also examine the officer's firearms' training record. It is the third time the Ombudsman's office has investigated a fatal shooting by a PSNI officer. "It's required that we do this and it's important that we do this for public confidence," said Hutchinson. "I think the police in Northern Ireland - the Police Service of Northern Ireland - have had 10 years of this rigorous external oversight and they are quite used to it, so there are no barriers put up."

Al Hutchinson knows there is a demand for information; for the precise detail of what happened in that shop last Thursday.

The Policing Board will want information. Marc Ringland's family want information.

But the investigation will not be rushed. Hutchinson and his investigating team will report - when they are ready.

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