Death threats “were not handled properly”

Plenty of coverage of the Police Ombudsman’s findings in relation to complaints made by the Committee on the Administration of Justice about the then-RUC’s investigation, or lack of it, into death threats made against the solicitor Rosemary Nelson. But, as always, it’s better to go to the source before commenting. The Ombudsman’s statement identifies the main findings as

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O’Loan, has said an abusive and inherently dangerous leaflet and a death threat made against the solicitor Rosemary Nelson were not handled properly by the police. Mrs O’Loan said that in their handling of these documents the RUC did not properly consider the particular nature of Mrs Nelson’s public profile, or the level of concern about her safety.

And one paragraph in the released version of the report stands out

“No individual officer had the responsibility for bringing together all these matters and making a risk and threat assessment based on all the available information. There were no systems in place at that time designed to ensure that information was captured and processed in that way.”

From the Police Ombudsman’s statement

Allegation One: (a) The Chief Constable and other unnamed officers failed to properly investigate the threats in the documents which the NIO had forwarded to the Chief Constable’s Office and (b) the RUC failed to request the original threatening documents prior to the murder.

One of the matters referred to in the complaint was contained in a leaflet which circulated in the Portadown area during the summer of 1998, and which referred to Mrs Nelson in an abusive and inherently dangerous manner, and gave her address and telephone number. The other was a copy of an anonymous letter received by Mrs Nelson in June 1998, which said “We have you in our sights…RIP.” Mrs Nelson said this letter terrified her.

The CAJ sent the copy documents to the NIO and asked that there be an assessment of any threat to the people named, including Mrs Nelson.

Finding. One (a) The Police Ombudsman has found that there is no evidence that the NIO forwarded the anonymous letter to the Chief Constable’s Office. Police Ombudsman investigators have established that the NIO faxed a general letter about the issues raised in the leaflet and note, but did not find any evidence that the two documents were also faxed to the police.

However, Mrs O’Loan found the RUC were aware of the letter and that it contained a threat to Mrs Nelson. (Moreover, it is known that Mrs Nelson produced the letter at a meeting about her complaints in September 1998.) The Police Ombudsman said she believes that the RUC did not deal with either the letter or the leaflet properly.

Mrs O’Loan said the RUC’s assessment of Mrs Nelson’s situation, and its subsequent actions, were inadequate. She said police should have made more strenuous efforts to establish a clearer picture of the level of risk and threat to Mrs Nelson, particularly given her profile at the time:

“They did not acknowledge the existence of the previous death threats, including two threats which were said to have come from police officers. Nor did they acknowledge a previous assessment in which Special Branch believed Mrs Nelson was at a “degree of risk” and that police had taken “some precautions”.

“No individual officer had the responsibility for bringing together all these matters and making a risk and threat assessment based on all the available information. There were no systems in place at that time designed to ensure that information was captured and processed in that way.” she said.

Finding One (b) The Police Ombudsman found there is no evidence that prior to the murder, the RUC requested the documents which the NIO had omitted to send to them, and had not initiated any investigation of them.

Mrs O’Loan said that in handling these matters, the police did not acknowledge the context of the particular nature of Mrs Nelson’s public profile and of the level of concern about her safety.

“Whether or not the anonymous note could have provided any forensic opportunity is a moot point. There is no evidence that the RUC tried to get the NIO copy of the anonymous letter, much less trace the original itself.

Strenuous enquiries should have been made into all the threats which Mrs Nelson received to identify whether there was any association between those threats and paramilitaries,” said Mrs O’Loan.

Finding Two: The Police Ombudsman rejected a complaint that the RUC failed to properly investigate the threats against Mrs Nelson contained in Loyalist Billy Wrights diary, and to inform her of the content of the diary. She concluded there was no evidence that police had possession of the diary prior to Mrs Nelson’s murder.

Finding Three. The Police Ombudsman rejected a complaint that police failed to warn Mrs Nelson about dangers she faced from the Loyalist Volunteer Force and its cover group, the Red Hand Defenders. Police Ombudsman investigators examined all relevant files and established that police did not hold any intelligence relating to threats to Mrs Nelson from those groups.

Finding Four: The Police Ombudsman has not substantiated a complaint that the Chief Constable failed in his responsibility to respond to the concerns repeatedly raised by the CAJ.

The Police Ombudsman is of the view that were delays in the responses to CAJ’s letters. However she accepts that there were occasions when the Chief Constable and other officers did meet with CAJ, and that the Chief Constable explained that he could not answer some of the questions raised, without putting in danger the integrity of the investigation into Mrs Nelson’s murder, and disclosing information he was not at liberty to disclose.