If you encountered a burglar in your house, would you shoot him dead? And feel justified in doing so? I wouldn’t. I might feel like pulverizing him but burglary isn’t a crime with capital punishment attached. Neither is car-stealing.
But if you’d listened to Terry Spence of the Police Federation on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh this morning, you might have been led to think otherwise. He was on defending the actions of a PSNI officer, who shot dead Steven Colwell. The Police Ombudsman (himself under some heavy fire these days) reports that in 2006 near Ballynahinch, 23-year-old Steven Colwell “was facing the officer with its (a stolen BMW's) engine revving, in what appeared to be an attempt to escape a vehicle checkpoint”. The officer drew his gun and shot Colwell through the front windscreen and again through a side window as the car tried to drive away. It was Easter Sunday and did I mention that Colwell, a Protestant, was wearing a Glasgow Celtic jersey?
Terry Spence with, what shall I say, some vigour insisted that the officer’s life was in danger as were the lives of other citizens, with this young car-thief careering around recklessly. You’d have thought presenter Karen Patterson had herself been guilty of a crime, the way Terry responded to her mild suggestion that the young man maybe didn’t have to be shot dead.
Enough already. The police here have an Everest of a task to earn the trust and respect of every citizen. Today the Irish Times reports on the Miami Showband massacre, and new claims that not only were two of those convicted members of the UDR, but that among the killers was an RUC agent. Take the distrust produced by incidents like that – and an awful lot of people believe there were hundreds of them- and you see how important it is that the PSNI act to support the law and act clearly within the law. The fact that the killer of Steven Colwell still serves in the PSNI makes a lot of people uneasy. Why couldn’t a simple barrier or stinger or even a police car have been placed in the path of Colwell, rather than an officer with a pointed gun? Yes, stolen cars are lethal weapons but they’re lethal weapons that can be decommissioned by other methods than bringing a young life to a hopeless Easter Sunday end. Even if, wearing a Celtic top, he was assumed to be a Catholic.