Police force fined £40,000 for shooting 'disaster'

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The Independent Online

A police force was fined £40,000 today after one of its firearms instructors accidentally shot and nearly killed a former rifle marksman.

Pc David Micklethwaite, who had failed a gun training course, mistakenly loaded a powerful Magnum .44 revolver with a live round from an old Quality Street tin - a practice the judge branded a "disaster waiting to happen".

The 52-year-old then pulled the trigger while pointing it at a civilian colleague during one of his classroom tutorials.

He was fined £8,000.

The bullet hit Keith Tilbury, 51, at Thames Valley constabulary headquarters in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, and caused devastating injuries, London's Southwark Crown Court heard.

Mr Tilbury, a phone operator who used to shoot for Britain, underwent five hours of life-saving surgery for an "exploded" bowel and kidney, as well as lung and liver damage.

He was unconscious for 12 days and has not returned to work.

Both Thames Valley police and Micklethwaite, who were also ordered to pay £25,000 and £8,000 costs respectively, admitted breaching health and safety rules.







Sentencing, Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith said it was clear the police force failed to provide "basic firearms awareness training to ensure, so far as it was reasonably practicable, persons in their employment ... were not thereby exposed to risk.

"The major failings for this offence was the control in ammunition.



"It is vital for public confidence that the police should be seen to be safe with weapons at all times and the guns and firearms and ammunition must be carefully audited and monitored.



"Such a system was properly in place but there was an informal and parallel system used by instructors."



He said that involved using various makeshift containers such as the Quality Street tin to store rounds, something that had been going on for up to 10 years.



The tin, whose contents were not subject to inventory, was not marked in any way and contained a mixture of "inert, pulled and live rounds".



He continued: "The inherent danger in such a system is glaringly obvious. There was nothing to indicate this tin contained live ammunition and there was no certain way of knowing whether rounds were live or not."



The judge said the force was also guilty of "serious lapses" in the control and provision of the firearms training course to police staff.



"The firearms training manual specifically states every gun should be treated as loaded. No gun should be pointed at anyone unless you intend to shoot them.



"These rules, I would have assumed, would have been paramount and instinctive to firearms instructors.



"However, these rules were not adhered to as absolutely as they should have been. Different instructors interpreted the rules differently. That seems to me because there was no planned or specific risk assessment for the course."









The judge said Micklethwaite, who was not present at today's hearing, had been a firearms instructor since 1990 and was clearly "highly experienced".

Yet he had "difficulty in passing his six-week national firearms course in 2005, particularly in some areas involving safety.



"Remarkably, he doesn't seem to have fully appreciated that he failed the course.



"What happened afterwards was highly unsatisfactory because he and others were not properly made aware of the failings and no proper development programme was put in place."



But the judge said the force's failings had to be seen against a "long history of serving the community, a history of which they are justly proud".



And apart from their early guilty plea, there had been a "prompt reaction to put right the deficiencies identified in this case and I accept that no stone has been left unturned in seeking to prevent any such incident happening again."



Dealing with the officer, who has issued a "heartfelt" apology for what happened, the judge said his failings were "fourfold".



"He took the Quality Street box to the classroom. He loaded the revolver with live ammunition. He failed to check it properly. Then he discharged the revolver while inadvertently pointing at Mr Tilbury.



"The offence spanned less than 24 hours in what was an otherwise unblemished 30-year career in the police force, which included two commendations.



"That tin has been described by the prosecution as a disaster waiting to happen. I agree with that. It doesn't reflect well on the force who allowed it to exist. It doesn't reflect well on the person who used it. It was a serious breach of care to his students."



However, he accepted his lapse had "drastically changed his life and for the worse". He had been transferred to other duties for "substantially" less money and faces disciplinary proceedings.



"So there has already been severe punishment and there could be more to come," said the judge.



He added while any fine on Thames Valley Constabulary involved the transfer of money "from one public body to another", the seriousness of the force's failings meant the fine and contribution towards prosecution costs were unavoidable.



However, Micklethwaite's fine and his costs contribution - £5,000 for the prosecution £3,000 towards his defence costs - would have to come out of his own pocket.



In addition, he will have to serve six months in prison if he defaults on the payments.



Richard Matthews, prosecuting, told the court that apart from the Quality Street tin, a Tupperware container and a baby food tin had also been used by Thames Valley firearms instructors to store ammunition.

He said former defence industry worker Mr Tilbury, who represented Britain while a member of the Berkshire county rifle team, was among 11 civilian workers taking part in the afternoon tutorial.



They watched closely as Micklethwaite picked up what he insisted was a "dummy" round and loaded it into the Dirty Harry-style revolver.



"The officer then held it close to his chest and repeatedly pulled the trigger to show how the barrel revolved," said Mr Matthews.



Realising he was looking down the barrel, Mr Tilbury decided to move and believed he was "in the process of getting out of my chair when I heard two clicks and a loud bang".



As the bullet punched through his body and lodged in the arm of a wooden chair behind him, he was first forced back into his own seat before sinking to the floor.



"He has had a series of operations and complications since that day. I am told he has suffered muscle loss to his torso and particularly around his bowel, which will continue to affect him forever," said the prosecutor.



"He has never been able to return to work... and according to my instructions, never will."



Thames Valley Police said it was an "embarrassing episode" that should never have happened. A decision on Micklethwaite's future with the force will be made after an internal disciplinary hearing.



Deputy Chief Constable Francis Habgood said: "This case has personally affected several people, none more so than Keith Tilbury and his family.



"The chief constable offered her apology to Keith and his family as soon as this happened and Pc Micklethwaite apologised at court last week. I want to reiterate the apology from Thames Valley Police to Keith.



"I agree with His Honour Judge Loraine-Smith, who said that this has been an embarrassing episode for Thames Valley Police, but can reassure everybody that we have changed our procedures and were recently described as a model force on firearms training issues by an independent review."



He said Micklethwaite was "an experienced firearms officer and trainer" and was leading the training session to help telephone operators respond to firearms-related incidents.



Thames Valley Police accepted that "additional control measures" could have prevented the shooting, Mr Habgood said.



Measures to prevent another shooting have now been introduced and endorsed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.



The use of accessible live ammunition has been banned from Thames Valley Police classrooms. The force now uses only de-activated weapons in classrooms, and has produced locked, plastic display cases to allow class members to see the ammunition.