A £3,000 compensation award for a woman who subjected PSNI officers to “vile” abuse makes it tougher to police public order situations, it has been claimed.
Police Federation chairman Terry Spence was commenting after a High Court judge said a female officer striking the claimant on the upper thigh with a baton amounted to excessive force.
The verdict came in an appeal against a County Court decision to dismiss the personal injury claim over the incident in Omagh, Co Tyrone.
Nicola McAleer had been drinking in the town with friends in September 2012 when she emerged from a pub to see a man she knew being arrested.
According to the policewoman, a crowd of up to 20 people had surrounded four officers at the scene.
The court heard they were shouting “Up the RA” and verbally abusing the officers.
The federation chairman said: “Officers acted in a graduated, proportionate manner and showed remarkable restraint, and this staff association is clearly disappointed with this decision.
“These officers are to be commended for their courage and commitment in what was obviously a very threatening situation.”
Mr Spence said Justice Gillen’s ruling would “make it even tougher for police officers to deal with hostile groups”.
He added: “This ruling follows a County Court decision to dismiss the personal injury claim even though the High Court heard that the plaintiff’s drink-fuelled behaviour was unacceptable.
“The fact that the judge said he didn’t think he could cut the size of the £3,000 award by up to half says there’s a flaw with the system, but that’s little consolation to our members who are out on the streets restoring order in what is all too often chaotic crowd confrontations.”
Ms McAleer – who claimed she saw a crowd standing around shouting and jeering at police and had gone over to see what was happening – alleged that a female officer hit her twice on the upper thigh.
She said the strikes inflicted pain which lasted for weeks and left her emotionally affected.
It was claimed that the plaintiff was among those acting aggressively towards the four officers.
Although the judge described Ms McAleer’s drink-fuelled behaviour as unacceptable, he held that the strikes to her leg involved excessive force.
He said the award would have been cut by up to a half on account of Ms McAleer’s own actions if the law had permitted him.
The policewoman accepted she was the only officer to hit people that night but denied having lost control.
Delivering his verdict, Mr Justice Gillen said: “I have no doubt that this was a highly charged incident in which vile abuse was heaped on the police officers who were doing their duty to the best of their ability.
“They were subjected to gross and obvious hostility.”
Finding that Ms McAleer had shown aggression by shouting at police, he said there was no good reason for her to have joined the crowd.
“The behaviour of this plaintiff was unacceptable,” he said.
However, the judge decided the policewoman used excessive force in not effectively controlling her strikes and limiting them to the lower legs.
“Notwithstanding that I found her much the more impressive of the two witnesses,” he said.
Dealing with the issue of any contributory negligence, Mr Justice Gillen explained: “I think it would be just and equitable if the plaintiff’s damages could be reduced by up to one-third/one half but I do not believe that the law permits me to do so.”
Chairman of the Assembly’s justice committee Paul Givan described the court ruling as “bizarre”.
The DUP MLA said: “This is a bizarre outcome where the public will see bad behaviour being rewarded and those who were trying to maintain the rule of law being
“The judge has recognised that there was bad behaviour which led to the police action but has deemed that the officer incorrectly used the baton.
“I will be seeking advice on how the law prevented the damages being reduced.”
Mr Givan added: “Four officers being surrounded and verbally abused by a crowd of 20 people is an incredible environment for any officer to work in.
“I note the judge praised the police officer in this case and rightly so.”
Ulster Unionist justice spokesman Tom Elliott said: “People simply will not understand how those who attack the police can be awarded public funding, it is simply indefensible.
“Those who are attempting to make an arrest and to protect the public, and who are attacked while doing so, should not somehow be portrayed as in the wrong.”