Steven Colwell killing: where’s the accountability?

Neil Colwell reaction /

A PSNI officer who shot dead an unarmed civilian nearly six years ago was allowed to remain on duty despite the Police Ombudsman describing his actions as “critically flawed” and asking the Chief Constable to consider whether he was fit to remain in possession of a firearm and engage with the public.

The Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, this morning (Thursday) publishes a report into the incident in which a PSNI officer shot dead 23 year-old Steven Colwell in Ballynahinch, Co Down on Easter Sunday April 2006. There was a lengthy delay before the report was published – and it is only being made public following the threat of legal action by the family.

Last night one of Steven’s brothers said that, ultimately, the report had been “for nothing”.

Colwell was shot twice as he attempted to drive a stolen car away from a police checkpoint set up following report that the car was headed for Ballynahinch with a civilian car in pursuit. The police officer who killed him – referred to in the report as Officer One – went sick shorty afterwards. The Public Prosecution Service ruled out charges two years ago and it emerged around then that the officer was back on duty.

However the Police Ombudsman’s findings, published this morning conclude that:

:: the actions of the police officer who shot Steven were “critically flawed”;

:: these included the officer drawing his gun at an early stage, placing himself in front of the vehicle and remaining there;

:: while Steven Colwell’s actions were reckless, the “critically flawed” judgements and actions of the police officer who fired played a greater part in Mr Colwell’s death;

:: forensic evidence contradicted the officer’s account of the shooting and that there is no evidence that the lives of either police nor pedestrians at the scene were at risk;

:: information gathered about the health and conduct of the officer who opened fire gave the Ombudsman “grave concerns” about the appropriateness of his officer’s deployment as a front line response officer that day.

The Ombudsman’s concerns about the officer had been relayed to the Chief Constable of the PSNI to allow him to review the officer’s suitability to be armed and engaged in direct contact with the public, the report revealed.

However the PSNI has refused to answer questions about what, if any action, has been taken against the officer concerned. One of Steven Colwell’s brothers, Neil Colwell, told The Detail last night (Wednesday) that accountability was still severely lacking. He has already been critical of PONI’s delay in publishing the report – it was only made public after the Colwell family threatened legal action.

PONI can only make recommendations based on its findings. Asked about the role of PONI in providing accountability, the Police Ombudsman investigator who led the probe into the killing of Steven Colwell, Paul Holmes, insisted that the question of disciplining Officer One was a matter for the Chief Constable and not PONI.

PONI senior investigator Paul Holmes /

What happened

Ombudsman investigators found that on the morning of the shooting Officer One and two colleagues had been briefed about a theft of a BMW car, a `creeper’ burglary and the general threat from dissident republicans.

When they heard on the police radio that the BMW was driving close to Ballynahinch they decided to set up a checkpoint.

Officer One told investigators he had planned to stop the stolen car under the guise of a routine enquiry and while engaging the driver in conversation, reach inside and grab the ignition keys.

When one of his colleagues noticed that the BMW was stopped in traffic Officer One ran towards the car shouting at the driver to stop.

Steven Colwell turned the BMW out of the queue of traffic but the driver of another car, which had been following it earlier, blocked Mr Colwell’s escape.

The 23-year-old then reversed into another car in the queue.

At that moment Officer One was standing in front of the BMW, aiming his gun at Steven Colwell.

He shouted for the driver to stop and the occupants of the car to get out.

The engine revved and the car lurched forward with its tyres screeching.

Officer One fired two shots – the first passing through the windscreen and the second passing through the driver’s window.

Mr Colwell tried to get out of the vehicle but collapsed and died at the scene.

A post mortem examination subsequently found that Ecstasy and a tranquiliser in Steven Colwell’s blood ‘could have affected his ability to control’ the car.

Officer One said he could not get out of the car’s way in time and had believed his only option was to open fire if he were to save his life and the lives of members of the public. He said that after he fired the first shot the car continued straight at him so, without moving position, he fired a second shot. The car lost speed, rolled into a driveway and came to a rest.

Many of the 30 witness statements taken from members of the public supported Officer One’s actions, claim that they were alarmed by what they saw as the danger Steven presented.

However Mr Hutchinson said forensic evidence contradicted Officer One’s account of what happened.

The evidence, he said, showed that the front wheels of the car were turned towards the opposite side of the road and the car turned left, away from the police officer. It also showed the officer moved to his left before discharging the second shot through the driver’s side window, as the car passed close to him.

It concluded: “There is no evidence that the lives of any pedestrian or of the other two police officers were at risk.”

PONI compiled a graphical reconstruction of what happened.

Reconstruction of Steven Colwell shooting / Courtesy of PONI

Mr Hutchinson said that Officer One’s decision to draw his gun at an early stage had escalated the situation.

“Having found himself directly in front of the vehicle with his handgun drawn, the police officer chose to stand his ground, aim his pistol directly at Steven Colwell and shout for him to stop the car.

“His decision to remain in that position allowed little or no room for an alternative outcome in the event that Mr Colwell failed to comply with these instructions.

“While Steven Colwell’s actions were reckless, the critically flawed judgements and actions of Police Officer One played a greater part in Mr Colwell’s death.”

Mr Hutchinson said Officer One’s decision to fire his weapon had created “significant risk” of further casualties.

He also expressed grave concerns that Officer One continued to be allowed to serve as a front line policeman.

In 2007 the Police Ombudsman had sought Officer One’s medical records from the Chief Constable.

Officer One took legal action to prevent the Ombudsman from gaining access to his records.

However, it emerged during that legal challenge that a year before the shooting of Steven Colwell, Officer One had been charged with assaulting his girlfriend and threatening to kill her.

It was further revealed that in August 2005 he had been spoken to by a superior officer after he had allegedly drawn his personal protection weapon at the son of a partner during a domestic incident.

However Officer One was not convicted of any offence arising from these complaints.

The court also heard that in March 2005, Officer One’s legal team had provided police with a psychiatric report in which it was claimed that he felt “isolated and victimised” and suffered from a bad temper and was “nervous in vans in case they contained undercover police or terrorists and depression was also mentioned.”

During the court hearing senior ombudsman investigator Paul Holmes raised concerns that Officer One’s fitness to be in possession of a weapon at the time of the fatal shooting “may well have been in doubt”.

At the time the PONI team attempted to get hold of the medical records, Officer One’s legal team successfully argued that they had breached the policeman’s right to privacy by failing to inform him as to why it had sought access to his medical records.

Despite the judge in the case telling the Ombudsman’s team that it was entitled to reapply for access to the policeman’s medical records, no new effort appears to have been made to access the records.

Mr Hutchinson said he was unable to establish to what extent, if any, Officer One’s medical history or previous conduct had impacted on events.

However, he added: “As a result of the information we gathered during our investigation, I had grave concerns about the appropriateness of this officer’s deployment as a front line response officer that day.

“I provided that information to the Chief Constable to allow him to review the officer’s suitability to be armed and engaged in direct contact with the public.

“This was an issue for the PSNI to determine.”

The PSNI last night said that it “deeply regretted” the death of Stephen Colwell and that it would now study the contents of the ombudsman’s report.

However a PSNI spokeswoman refused to say what action, if any, has been taken against Officer One in light of the Ombudsman’s concerns over his fitness to carry a weapon and remain on front line duties.

“We do not discuss individual officers.

“However, we can guide you that the PPS directed no prosecution in December 2009 and the officer returned to work in 2010."

How does police accountability work?

In his interview with The Detail (above), Mr Holmes was unable to provide answers about the outcome for the police officer who killed Steven Colwell.

“At the conclusion of our investigation the Police Ombudsman forwarded the information we’d gathered in respect of police officer One’s background to the Chief Constable,” he said.

“We made him aware of certainly as much as we had obtained and left it to the Chief Constable, as the employer of course, to make any decisions around that.”

Asked if he could confirm whether Officer One had been allowed to return to duty or whether there were any restrictions placed on him carrying a weapon, he said:

“No, I can’t answer that. I think it’s more appropriate for the Chief Constable to answer.”

Asked about his own documented concerns in 2007 as to whether Officer One had been fit for duty on the day of the shooting, Mr Holmes was unable to elaborate:

“As to whether or not I believe Officer One should have been on duty that day, again I believe that it is really a matter for the Chief Constable.”

And asked to confirm that PONI had recommended to the PPS in 2009 that Officer One should face a murder charge in relation to the shooting of Steven Colwell, he said:

“Suffice to say that we submitted a comprehensive file to the PPS and the decisions around prosecution are entirely a matter for the PPS.”

Questioned over the apparent contradictions between officer One’s evidence and the forensic report of the shooting, the investigator said:

“Clearly there is significant inconsistency in a number of issues around the forensic evidence.

“Whether those inconsistencies are created by perceptions, which are into the area of psychological issues, we can’t establish.

“Ultimately it is only Police Officer One who knows what was going through his mind at the moment he discharged the shots.”

Asked whether he could understand the Colwell family’s concerns over the decision to allow Officer One to return to front line duties despite the concerns raised in the PONI report, Mr Holmes said:

“Clearly this has been a great tragedy for the Colwell family and I can fully understand all of their concerns and issues with the circumstances of Steven Colwell’s death.

“But as I’ve said previously, the matter of employment of any police officer is a matter for the chief constable, not for the Police Ombudsman,"

What do the family get out of it?

Last night Neil Colwell gave a qualified welcome to the long-awaited report.

“I’m pleased that Steven Colwell’s name has been cleared," he said.

“He’s been vindicated. He didn’t put the life of any civilian or police officer at risk."

But criticising the report’s failure to recommend any disciplinary measures against Officer One, he said:

“This report has been for nothing. I would have liked to have seen this man put out of the force and an apology from the PSNI for my young brother for losing his life unjustly.”

Questioned whether he thought a similar fatality could happen in the future, he said:

“Let’s hope that it makes them think twice. After all, we‘re in peacetime here. There’s no longer a conflict in Northern Ireland.

“They can’t justify shooting unarmed civilians. It doesn’t happen in England, Scotland or Wales. Why should it happen in Northern Ireland?”