Two police officers have been disciplined after driving at 81mph through a 30mph zone in the village of Claudy in an unmarked police vehicle with no sirens or flashing lights activated, after having been in pursuit of a car.
It follows a Police Ombudsman investigation into the incident, which took place on Sunday 11 December 2011. The Renault Clio car which police had been following crashed, killing 20-year-old Dungiven woman, Claire Kelly.
The driver of the Clio later pleaded guilty to a series of offences – including dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving with excess alcohol - and was jailed for three years and banned from driving for five years.
An investigation into the incident by the Police Ombudsman found no causal link between the way in which the police car was driven and Miss Kelly’s death, but raised other concerns about the incident.
The accident happened shortly before 1.40am after officers noticed a Renault Clio perform a handbrake turn in the village of Feeny and head off at speed in the direction of Claudy.
Police gave chase but the police driver said he quickly abandoned the pursuit given the speed at which the Clio was being driven. He said he lost sight of it not far from Feeny.
CCTV footage secured from business premises in Claudy and examined by a Police Ombudsman investigator suggested there was a 12 second gap between the two cars just before the crash, which happened on the outskirts of the village.
Fire and ambulance services were called, but Miss Kelly, a rear seat passenger, later died of her injuries at Altnagelvin Hospital.
The driver of the car and another passenger, Miss Kelly’s boyfriend, provided statements to the Police Ombudsman’s investigation. Witness appeals in the media and along the route taken by the cars also identified a number of other witnesses.
The driver of the Clio said he panicked and fled from police as he had been drinking and was uninsured. He said he touched the brakes as he tried to negotiate a right-hand bend and had felt the car “wiggle” before it crashed.
He said he had not heard sirens but had at one stage seen blue flashing lights in the windscreen of the police car.
The driver of the police car - a trained advanced police driver and pursuit driver - denied any wrongdoing when interviewed by a Police Ombudsman investigator. Although he admitted driving through Claudy at speed without sirens or flashing lights, he said he had continually assessed the situation for any dangers. Police guidelines require officers to inform the police control room when a car fails to stop and seek authority to pursue it. He and the other officer in the car – also a trained advanced police driver – failed to inform the police control room about the pursuit.
The driver said the pursuit ended before they left Feeny village, the other officer said they had not been in pursuit at any stage.
An examination of the unmarked black-coloured Skoda Octavia police car also raised concerns that electronic equipment mounted in the vehicle could have impaired the driver’s view and had the potential to cause serious injury if the vehicle’s airbags were activated. Video recording equipment within the police car was also found to have had two separate faults and no footage of the incident was recorded.
Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire said that driving at 81mph in a 30mph zone could in some circumstances be justified, but pointed out that CCTV footage had shown there to be other cars and pedestrians in the area at the time.
He said: “In this case it should have been obvious that driving at this speed, through a small built up town, without either emergency blue warning lights or sirens, in an unmarked black-coloured vehicle, at about 1.30am when drunken night revellers are likely to be nearby, would have been far below the standard of driving expected of a police officer.”
He recommended that the police driver and the other officer be disciplined for their handling of the incident. The PSNI has since implemented the recommended sanctions.