The Police Ombudsman has recommended two police officers be disciplined after a car chase resulted in the death of a young mum of two who was out walking to a Belfast shop.
However, police have only said the officers involved received "management advice".
The Police Ombudsman also found the PSNI was wrong to issue a press statement after the incident saying the high-speed pursuit had ended before the tragic crash.
Lisa Gow, 32, was hit by a stolen Audi A4 on the Ballysillan Road on her way to the chemist to pick up a prescription. She had dropped her children off at primary school shortly before the incident.
Martin Nelson, of Ardoyne Road in Belfast, admitted causing her death by dangerous driving and was jailed for 11 years.
Ombudsman Marie Anderson has recommended two police officers should be disciplined and made recommendations as to how pursuits should be handled following her investigation.
Two unmarked police cars were in pursuit of the stolen vehicle when it attempted to overtake a van which was turning right into a parking area. The Audi and van collided before the Audi hit Ms Gow.
Video footage from police cars and a police helicopters, along with forensic evidence, indicated that the lead police car was closely behind the Audi at the time of the collision.
The pursuit commander had previously assessed the pursuit to pose a “medium to high risk." and issued a radio transmission stating that the pursuing police cars would “pull back”.Although the lead police car did so momentarily its speed increased and the gap between it and the Audi closed immediately before the collision, according to the Police Ombudsman. When interviewed by investigators, the drivers of both police cars denied the criminal offence of driving dangerously.
The driver of the lead vehicle said he did pull back, and the driver of the second police car said he maintained a safe distance from his colleague’s car in front.The pursuit commander in the lead police car said their vehicle was about to “pull back” but was awaiting confirmation that the crew of the police helicopter had taken over the task of monitoring and providing commentary about the stolen Audi.An independent expert on the management of police pursuits stated that he considered both pursuing police cars had been driven in compliance with police training and driving standards.A stinger device designed to safely deflate tyres was used by police in the minutes prior to the crash. Spikes consistent with those from the device were found in a punctured tyre from the Audi.
A senior forensic scientist stated that he did not consider that the deflation had played any significant part in causing the collision, the ombudsman found.The Police Ombudsman submitted a file of evidence to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) which subsequently directed that neither police driver should be prosecuted.Having received the PPS direction of no prosecution, the Police Ombudsman, Mrs Marie Anderson, was required to consider whether any officer involved in the incident had committed any misconduct offences.She recommended that the pursuit commander, who was travelling in the lead police car, should be disciplined for “failing to ensure that action was taken to mitigate the risk” posed by the “close pursuit”.She also recommended that the driver of the lead police car should be disciplined for failing “to recognise the risk in not creating space between his police vehicle and the subject vehicle when the pursuit commander assessed the risk as medium to high.”The PSNI’s Professional Standards Department disagreed with the Police Ombudsman’s recommendations. It stated that there was learning for all involved in the pursuit, and gave the officers involved advice designed to improve their future performance.The Police Ombudsman also investigated a public complaint about a press release issued by the PSNI after the collision.
The release stated, incorrectly, that the police pursuit had ended before the crash. The complainant stated that the release had caused distress and impacted on public confidence in policing.Mrs Anderson concluded that the release was inaccurate and should not have been issued during the ongoing Police Ombudsman investigation. She submitted a file to the PSNI recommending that the matter be addressed as unsatisfactory performance by the officer responsible. The PSNI accepted and implemented this recommendation.The Police Ombudsman also made a number of recommendations to police to improve the management of vehicle pursuits. These included that the PSNI should conduct enquiries to establish why a video “downlink” between the police helicopter and the police control room had not worked during the pursuit.She further recommended that police should conduct joint training between its Air Support and vehicle pursuit units, after her investigation found there to have been a lack of detail in the information being relayed by the helicopter crew to other police officers.Welcoming the PSNI’s acceptance of these recommendations, Mrs Anderson said: “It will be necessary to monitor progress on the implementation of these recommendations and I would ask the Policing Board to note the significance of these recommendations to safe policing practice.”She added: “It is important that there is learning for individual officers following the traumatic circumstances of this police pursuit.“My thoughts are with Lisa’s family, who lost her in a tragic accident. I thank them for their engagement with my investigators and for their patience in awaiting the outcome of this lengthy and complex investigation.”
Assistant Chief Constable for Local Policing Bobby Singleton said: "Our thoughts are first and foremost with the family and loved ones of Ms Gow but also with all of those who were affected by this tragic and traumatic incident. "Martin Alexander Nelson, the driver of the stolen car, has since been convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison for causing Ms Gow’s death by dangerous driving and five other offences. "The Police Ombudsman’s recommendations were considered against the Police Conduct Regulations. The officers concerned subsequently received management advice. "The Police Ombudsman found that a public statement issued by police at the time was inaccurate and should not have been issued during their ongoing investigation.
"Having previously apologised to the family in relation to this matter, we fully accept the Ombudsman’s comments today and would reiterate our apology for the further distress this statement caused to the Gow family."
The Police Federation, which represents the rank and file of the PSNI said the ombudsman needed to have further consideration of the situations officers faced.
Chair Liam Kelly said: “This was a tragedy. A life was lost in a reckless act and the offender was convicted and handed an 11-year sentence for causing death by dangerous driving.
“This terrible incident in which Ms Gow was killed happened in April 2018. According to an independent expert on police pursuits the two police cars involved had been driven in compliance with police training and driving standards. The PPS directed no prosecutions of officers. The officers received management advice.
“That is where this should have ended. The officers were attempting to intervene and stop a dangerous offender. The focus of their actions was apprehending the driver of a stolen vehicle.
“This incident happened in 2018. The offending driver, Martin Alexander Nelson, went through a Crown Court trial and was subsequently convicted and sentenced to eleven years imprisonment in July 2019.
"In contrast it has taken OPONI more than four years to publish its report. That is abysmal. In all that time, this entire incident has taken a heavy toll on the officers involved. No account appears to have been taken of the personal distress and trauma that was involved.
“The Ombudsman has a job to do, but a little bit of understanding towards officers involved in dynamic incidents would go some way towards renewing confidence in the system which, right now, fails to deliver expeditious outcomes for individual officers.”
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