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Use of pepper spray, tasers and impact rounds justified to prevent woman self-harming

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The Police Ombudsman has concluded that police were justified in using pepper spray, TASERs and impact rounds to prevent a woman harming herself with a knife in east Belfast.

The Police Ombudsman investigated the use of force by police during the incident after being notified by the Chief Constable that firearms had been used.

Enquiries revealed that police had responded to a call from a member of the public who had seen the woman walking near train lines in the late afternoon of 6 November 2018.

When officers arrived at the scene they tried to speak to the woman but received no response. They also reported that she had a knife, which led to armed response officers being tasked to help deal with the situation.

By the time the armed officers arrived, the woman had crouched down against a wall close to the rail line with her head bowed and the knife held to her throat.

Rail traffic in the area was stopped as trained police negotiators tried to encourage her to drop the knife. After about two hours, she had still made no response and was continuing to hold the knife to her throat.

Officers later told Police Ombudsman investigators that they had grown increasingly concerned for the woman’s welfare. They said she seemed not to be reacting to changing weather conditions, and described her breathing as being barely noticeable.

A police Tactical Firearms Commander (TFC), who had been monitoring the situation as it unfolded, then authorised the use of PAVA pepper spray in a bid to cause her to drop the knife.

An initial use of the spray proved ineffective, as did a second from a different angle.

The TFC then approved the use of TASER, but the woman did not react to the first use of the weapon, nor a second subsequent discharge.

Officers were then authorised to use AEP (Attenuated Energy Projectile) impact rounds. They fired a first round which struck the woman but produced no apparent response.

A second round was then fired by another officer. It struck the woman, who then opened her hand and dropped the knife.

Police officers provided immediate aftercare before ambulance staff took over and transported the woman to hospital.

The Police Ombudsman investigating officer found that officers’ accounts of what had happened were corroborated by police records, as well as Body Worn Video footage and police radio transmissions.

The woman’s family reported that she had sustained extensive bruising as a result of the AEP discharges, but had suffered no lasting injury. Neither they nor the woman herself made any complaint about the use of force by police.

Having reviewed the evidence, the Police Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, noted that police had employed a graduated response, employing greater levels of force only when other lesser options had failed.

She concluded that police had used force with the aim of protecting life, and found their actions to have been reasonable and proportionate and in compliance with legislation and police guidelines.

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