Criticism over the handling of an inquest into a fatal collision at sea drew a strong response from the Royal Gibraltar Police yesterday, after the European Confederation of Police’s President, Calum Steele, said it was “shocking” that senior police officers had remained silent in the process.
Mr Steele made the statement at the opening of the two day EuroCOP conference at the Sunborn Hotel, which saw representatives of police unions from across Europe, including the UK, Spain, Greece and Malta, attend and discuss issues regarding policing.
And he pulled no punches speaking to the press after his address, describing the situation as “an absolute disgrace.”
“The fact that there seems to have been such a lack of awareness within the police service about the consequences of their silence on the maritime operation and the realities of policing at sea, and what that means for the whole of Europe,” Mr Steele told the Chronicle.
“Gibraltar is such a corner of Europe, but it has a significant strategic role to play in protecting the whole of Europe from illegal importations of drugs and other criminality.”
“As an organisation we were surprised that the police service displayed such naivety in allowing the inquest to proceed without providing significant operational context as to what maritime interventions involve.”
“I mean these interceptor vessels travel at exceptionally highspeed at night, spray coming up onto the coxswain of the vessel and the notion that there is the practical ability to look at instruments when they are in those high-tension environments is blusteringly naïve.”
“Fundamentally they failed.”
“There has been a failure of police leadership on this issue and it is an absolute disgrace.”
“Not just for the individual officers that was concerned and of course their families but also for all of the policing in Europe.”
But the criticism drew response from the Commissioner of Police, Richard Ullger, who last night questioned how Mr Steele could comment on the case without speaking to the RGP or being involved in the proceedings.
“It is, frankly, unbelievable that a person who was not involved in the Coroner’s Inquest proceedings in Gibraltar should feel comfortable to comment on the complex policing issues that arose in the Inquest,” Mr Ullger told the Chronicle.
“Given that the officers involved in the collision at sea have commenced judicial review proceedings in respect of the Inquest, it would be extremely inappropriate to comment at this stage.”
“It goes without saying that I entirely refute the unfounded and unsupported allegations as to a lack of leadership in the Royal Gibraltar Police, and, as I have previously stated, I will issue a full statement at the conclusion of the relevant proceedings.”
“All that I will add, at this juncture, is that Mr Steele has made his comments to the press without even having contacted the command of the RGP.”
Last year after a two-week in quest jurors found that Ceuta residents Mustafa Dris Mohamed, 49, and Mohamed Abdeslam Ahmed, 40, were unlawfully killed in the collision.
The men and two others were on a rigid-hulled inflatable boat when their vessel was involved in a collision with the RGP vessel, Sir John Chapple, in Spanish waters in March 2020.
Jurors heard extensive evidence from independent experts, serving and former police officers, and those involved in the incident itself. They took just three hours to reach their verdict.
The unanimous finding of unlawful killing meant the jury believed it was more likely than not that the RGP officers breached their duty of care and that the deaths were a reasonably foreseeable outcome based on the consequences of the police boat’s actions.
But two police officers who were on the RGP vessel have since filed a claim for judicial review in a bid to quash the inquest verdict.
The claim for judicial review argues that the Coroner’s directions to the jury “diluted the threshold” that should have been applied in order for the jury to reach a verdict of unlawful killing.
“The significance of this appeal for police officers in the whole of Europe, particularly with the close working relationship between the British police services and the Spanish police services in and around Gibraltar is enormous, because it could be any police officer engaged in any of this kind of activity that finds themselves in the same position,”Mr Steele said.
“So it’s really important that the legal challenges are pursued further.”
Mr Steele added that police officers should not have to second guess whether they will be supported by their leadership for undertaking policing acts and duties.
“One of the overarching elements of being in a police service is that sense of family and if the head of the family isn’t prepared to look after those that are effectively the newborn of the family, that’s not a clever position to be in,” Mr Steele said.
“It’s remarkable, and to the credit of the police officers in Gibraltar that still continue to serve, but that doubt of the lack of leadership of something so significant can always be lingers at the back of their minds, it’s inevitable it would be.”
During his speech, Mr Steele told the EuroCop conference that senior officers should have given evidence at the inquest in support of their crews.
“Had they found the courage to provide the leadership our colleagues in Gibraltar deserve, by providing vital operational context into the realities of how maritime operations work, it is impossible to consider the ruling would have gone the same way,” he said.
In setting out his views, Mr Steele was echoing earlier criticism voiced by the Gibraltar Police Federation.