Northern Ireland

PSNI may face legal action over Steven Colwell shooting

The brother of a man shot dead by a policeman in 2006 has said his family may take legal action against the chief constable and the officer.

Steven Colwell, 23, was shot after he failed to stop at a checkpoint in Ballynahinch on 16 April 2006.

"We never received an apology personally from the police. That's hard to accept," said Neil Colwell.

The police ombudsman found that the actions of the policeman were "critically flawed".

While praising the ombudsman's report as "thorough and extensive", Neil Colwell said he did not think the family would ever receive justice.

He said his family had believed the officer who shot Steven would be subject to some form of disciplinary action.

"Maybe we'll take legal proceedings regarding civil action against the police," he said.

Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said that while Steven Colwell's actions were reckless, the police officer's actions played "the greater part" in the tragedy.

He said that he had grave concerns that the constable was acting in such a role that day.

Mr Colwell was the driver of a stolen BMW which was facing the officer with its engine revving, in what appeared to be an attempt to escape a vehicle checkpoint, having ignored the officer's commands to stop the car.

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

Mr Hutchinson found that the officer's actions in discharging two shots created significant risk of further casualties.

The Police Federation has rejected the findings of the police ombudsman.

It said the officers at the scene had "acted in good faith and were exonerated by the Public Prosecution Service".

"The ombudsman's report is unhelpful and is totally dependent upon lengthy analysis and opinion on actions taken in split seconds and under genuine fear of lethal threat to the lives of police and public," the Police Federation said.

"The report raises serious issues of failure to regard the human rights of officers and their right to be free from unfair public comment once cleared by the formal judicial process and by the PSNI's internal post incident procedures."


Mr Colwell was shot at a vehicle checkpoint outside Ballynahinch Police Station.

There were three officers at the checkpoint who had earlier been briefed about the theft of a silver BMW, a "creeper" burglary and about a general threat from dissident republicans.

Shortly before 11:00 BST, as they monitored the police radio, they heard discussion about the movement of the stolen car.

By 11:10 BST they heard it was at Seaforde, seven miles away.

The officers believed that the car was likely to be travelling towards Ballynahinch and decided to establish a vehicle checkpoint outside the station.

Within a few minutes, one of the police officers caught sight of the BMW in the queue of traffic stopping at the checkpoint.

One of his colleagues shouted to police officer one, who then ran towards the car, shouting at the driver to stop.

Mr Colwell tried to move the car and drive away, but was hindered by other cars.

The officer moved in front of the car and aimed his gun at the driver. He again ordered Mr Colwell to stop the car and get out.

The ombudsman report said at this stage the engine revved and the car lurched forward with its tyres screeching.

Police officer one fired two shots. The first went through the windscreen and the second through the driver's window.

Mr Colwell got out of the car and collapsed.

Despite the efforts of medical personnel, he was pronounced dead at the scene.

A post mortem found a level of the drug ecstasy and a tranquiliser in his blood which "could have affected his ability to control" the car.

Forensic evidence

Image caption Mr Colwell was driving a stolen car when he was shot

Police officer one said that 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 made by members of the public support the police actions.

But forensic evidence contradicted the police officer's account of what happened.

It 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.

Mr Hutchinson said there was no evidence that the lives of any pedestrian or of the other two police officers were at risk.

The ombudsman's investigation found that police officer one escalated the situation at an early stage by drawing his gun.

"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," the report said.

Mr Hutchinson said that whilst examining police officer one's personnel records, issues about his health and his previous conduct as a police officer came to light.

The officer mounted a successful legal challenge, which prevented the chief constable from releasing further information to the police ombudsman's office.

The investigation was unable to establish to what extent, if any, police officer one's medical history or previous conduct impacted on events in Ballynahinch.

"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," said Mr Hutchinson.

"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."

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