Wed, 06 Jan, 2021 – 06:45 Cormac O’Keeffe, Security Correspondent
Eight seconds. That is what the George Nkencho investigation will ultimately boil down to.
Based on the video of the shooting, which was widely circulated after the tragedy, that is the time period capturing the discharge of five shots by an armed garda.
But there are other key issues that will be examined by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc), which has automatically taken charge of the investigation.
Much expectation has been placed on this probe, which was launched against the background of anger, and protests, within the local west African Irish community in Blanchardstown, west Dublin.
Highly-charged accusations have been made by certain people of Garda racial profiling, racial bias, and even racist policing, though little or no supporting evidence has, to date, been offered directly related to the shooting itself. George Nkencho had a ‘serious mental illness’ his family said.
Gsoc investigators are dealing with a legal team representing the family of Mr Nkencho.
The Irish Examiner understands that legal representatives are not making any racism-related allegations against the gardaí and are focusing on “grave concerns” regarding the shooting itself.
It is understood that legal correspondence has already been sent to Gsoc and a meeting is due to take place soon, after which more detail, and perhaps fresh allegations, may emerge.
BEFORE THE SHOOTING
Gardaí responded to reports of a “public order incident” involving a male in his late 20s, “armed with a knife” at Hartstown Shopping Centre at 12.15pm last Wednesday.
A Garda statement said that during an incident at a EuroSpar shop, a male staff member received “facial injuries” and was hospitalised.
Garda sources suggested the injuries included suspected fractures to the victim’s nose and jaw, but they were not the result of a blade.
The statement said a second public order incident was reported at the post office, just beside EuroSpar.
It said: “Uniform, unarmed gardaí responded to the scene and observed a male in possession of a knife. The male continued to threaten members of the public and unarmed gardaí with the knife.”
The statement said: “Gardaí followed the male on foot and in vehicles from the Hartstown Shopping Centre towards Manorfields Drive. During this period, gardaí were engaging with the male and encouraging him to drop the weapon.”
Gardaí rang for backup and waited for the arrival of the armed support unit (ASU).
Video clips taken on a mobile phone capture part of Mr Nkencho’s route across a green, followed by two Garda cars — one the local Garda patrol car with two unarmed members and the other a crime task force car, also with two unarmed gardaí.
The first question some people have asked was why was Mr Nkencho not disarmed and arrested there, on the green, away from people?
“Why was the intervention not made at an earlier stage?” said one source close to the family.
“When he was on the green and no threat to anybody? Why was he not surrounded on the green before he could become a threat?”
Several Garda sources responded to this proposition.
“It depends. Was he carrying a small Swiss army knife or a big bread knife?” said one experienced garda.
“If you have pepper spray and an ASP [baton] and a stab vest and he has a small knife you may risk it — but if he has a big bread knife that will go straight into your heart — and there are ways around a stab vest — probably not.
“Also, in this case, you know the ASU are on their way, and they are trained to deal with these situations, and armed. So, the idea is to keep him away from anyone else, don’t intervene unless he’s a threat to the public. The idea is to contain him — mobile containment, isolate him until gardaí can surround him and you know the solution is coming with the ASU.”
A separate Garda source pointed out that a garda — Detective Garda Colm Horkan — was killed only last June after intervening with an individual on the street, and that this could be in the back of the mind of many frontline gardaí.
Another issue sources close to the family highlight is the behaviour of Mr Nkencho walking across the green on video.
“The only imagery we have is the guards driving their cars across the green as he is walking away from them, just walking home — yet Garda sources give the impression he was carrying on like a maniac swinging knives at them.”
A second question is whether or not gardaí had knowledge of Mr Nkencho’s mental health condition.
It is not clear what knowledge the two ASU officers had of Mr Nkencho’s mental health history. In fact, it is not confirmed the local gardaí had identified him or if gardaí knew the house he was outside, on Manorfields Drive, was his home.
It is not clear if anyone, particularly the two ASU officers, had been informed of a previous domestic incident at the family home, though sources believe that, with the address, some garda could have checked the Pulse system.
In relation to the domestic incident, gardaí dealt with it under the mental health legislation.
Family members did obtain a protection order against Mr Nkencho.
The assistance of a GP and the HSE was sought to refer Mr Nkencho for psychiatric assistance.
The family did confirm after the shooting that Mr Nkencho had a “serious mental illness”.
Various sources point to a serious undiagnosed psychiatric condition, suggesting Mr Nkencho would not have been in receipt of recommended medical or therapeutic interventions.
The Irish Examiner understands that Mr Nkencho continued to live at the family home since the protection order and used the box bedroom in the house, where he spent much of his time.
As an aside, and as reported last week in this newspaper and others, Mr Nkencho was not a criminal — a lie circulated on social media causing added distress to his extended family, which boasts doctors, trainee solicitors, and social care students, and the wider community.
“There was enough gardaí to know who George was and his situation, regarding his mental health,” said one source close to the family.
The source did not believe gardaí did not know the house was his and that the people inside it were his family members.
There is an account — which has not been commented on by gardaí — that a sibling of Mr Nkencho exited the front door before the shooting to go to Mr Nkencho’s assistance and to bring him inside — but that the member was told by gardaí to stay indoors.
In relation to the shooting, the Garda statement said: “The Armed Support Unit were also threatened with a knife and implemented a graduated response where the use of less-lethal force options (taser and OC spray) was initially administered in an effort to resolve the incident. The less-lethal use of force options were unsuccessful.
“At approximately 12.35pm a member of the Armed Support Unit discharged a number of shots from his official firearm shooting the male.”
Garda sources have said that five shots were fired. All were fired by one officer.
While autopsy results are awaited, Mr Nkencho is believed to have been shot twice in the torso and once, possibly twice, in the arm.
A video clip, just 14 seconds, taken by locals out with their dogs on a green beside Manorfields Drive, provides a major piece of evidence, not only for Gsoc investigators but the family’s legal team.
It suggests there were 10 to 12 gardaí gathered at the house. Gardaí say these comprised two ASU officers and two local detectives, who would have been armed but not involved in the intervention.
In addition, were the four uniformed gardaí following Mr Nkencho and, it appears, a further two to four uniformed officers.
One question raised by commentators is why such a large number of gardaí could not subdue Mr Nkencho without using lethal force.
The video clip does not show what transpired at the house before the use of the firearms.
One Garda source speaking generally about such a scenario said: “Of the 12 guards, which one is going to take the knife, which one is going to take the hit in a group effort to disarm him. It’s very easy to say, but that act could end your life.”
Gardaí say the Taser guns were used twice and pepper spray once, but did not work.
Sources have said that this can happen and that Tasers need, at a minimum, to pierce the skin. Sources said that bubble jackets, like that worn by Mr Nkencho, don’t allow Tasers to penetrate to the skin.
“When the pepper spray and Tasers are gone, all you have left is the gun,” said one Garda source.
Various sources, with different perspectives on the shooting, agree that huge focus will be on the events leading up to the decision to fire the first shot — as well as the final, fifth shot.
Again, the video does not show the events before the first shot — and Gsoc will try and piece that together from statements from all the gardaí present, and Mr Nkencho’s siblings.
A slowed down version of the shooting, which it is thought the family and their legal team have examined, appears to show Mr Nkencho with his back to the gardaí when the first shot was fired.
Whether the video accurately captures sound and movement of people, or if there is a delay of any kind, will perhaps only be cleared up for a forensic analysis of the video.
But Garda sources said the issue is the danger posed by Mr Nkencho to other people, including the people inside the house.
“Letting him go into the house is not an option,” said one garda.
“He is violent, he has just assaulted someone. He is armed, with a knife, and he isn’t complying with directions to drop the knife.
“You can’t leave him go into the home with a knife. What if he murders someone there, particularly if there is history. What if there are children in there? Most murders we know are domestic. It’s not an option to let him in.”
A senior, experienced firearms officer said: “He had assaulted someone and was running around with a knife. Who else could he stab, if not us? If we step back and he goes into the house or a neighbour’s and stabs someone, what trouble would we be in then? He was called and called [to drop the weapon] and tasered and pepper sprayed.”
The video shows the first four shots were fired one after another — almost a second in between each of them — with the fifth and final shot coming some four seconds later.
The video shows Mr Nkencho turning after the first shot, arm raised and swinging down with the knife towards one of the ASU officers.
He appears to swing around and move despite the second and third shot.
After being shot a fourth time, he appears to remain upright and appears to still move or stumble, forward and sideways, before being shot a fifth time.
One Garda source said: “He was aggressive, he kept coming forward and you have to keep firing.
It is what they [armed support] are trained for. Once there is a danger for life and he keeps swinging with the knife.
Questions have also been raised regarding two holes in a pane of glass at the door of the Nkencho family home and whether or not they came from the five shots fired by the ASU officer.
This could suggest Mr Nkencho was hit three times – with two confirmed injuries in his torso, and the other possibly in his arm – along with two misses.
It is also possible one or two bullets exited him or ricocheted through the pane of glass.
Sources close to the family have expressed concerns over this saying the three siblings were in the hallway at the time.
Various sources said the post mortem will determine for certain how many times Mr Nkencho was hit and if there are any exit wounds, while forensic and ballistic examinations will provide an insight into the firing of shots and positioning of the garda and Mr Nkencho.
The family has been granted an independent autopsy on Mr Nkencho but there have been difficulties organising that. Usually, they are performed by experts from outside the country, but because of Covid-19 restrictions, this is proving very difficult.
While alternatives are being organised, this may also delay Mr Nkencho’s funeral. The coroner had indicated to the family that the remains would be released to them this Friday.
Various sources agree that the fifth shot will be a particular focus of attention for Gsoc and the family’s legal team.
“None of the arguments from gardaí explain the fifth shot,” said one source close to the family.
“After the second or third shot there is no swinging of the knife to explain the fifth shot. There is a gap of four seconds until the fifth shot.
“In shots three and four he is staggering backwards — what need was there to fire the last shot. He didn’t have a gun, he wasn’t going anywhere, he was not a threat.”
Garda sources say the video shows Mr Nkencho was still coming towards gardaí after each shot — but some do agree there will be a focus on the final shot.
“There are four shots together and a fifth shot a few seconds later,” said one garda.
“Was he still upright after four shots? Was the last shot justified?”
The source added: “There’s a threat assessment for each shot. Was there a threat to life for the first shot, the other shots, and was there a threat to life for the fifth shot?”
The source said it “doesn’t matter” if there was a threat to life for the first four shots if there wasn’t for the fifth shot.
“It could boil down to the circumstances for that last shot.”
The garda added: “But you are talking about balancing risks in seconds or mini-seconds — is he still coming, is he going down? The ASU guy could have been backing away but he kept coming.”
The ASU officer will need to show investigators that he had a genuine and honest belief there was a threat to life for each of the shots he fired and that it was a proportionate response to that threat, sources said.
Another source said the Gsoc investigators will examine if the gardaí were qualified in the weapons they were using and the tactics they deployed at the scene.
“Gsoc will assess the judgement of the guard against the evidence — the video evidence and other guards present,” said a source.
“They will determine what was the guard’s belief at the time and were his actions reasonable and proportionate.”
Questions have also been raised by some people as to why gardaí did not shoot at Mr Nkencho’s arms or legs.
But Garda sources do not agree that this is possible or practical: “You try to hit a moving arm or leg?” said one garda.
“It’s not easy to be that accurate and the video shows he was moving all over the place.”
Another garda said: “You aim for the central mass [of the body] — it’s all about stopping the threat. If you shoot at the arm or leg and the shot goes into the house or a neighbour’s behind them, what then?”
Figures show gardaí are dealing with around 100 similar incidents a year — known as Hostage/Barricade/Suicide (HBS) type incidents — where they are dealing with individuals posing a serious threat to either themselves or others or both.
While cases of fatal shootings by gardaí are very rare — an estimated six in the last 22 years —
the 2019 Garda Annual Report shows the National Negotiation Unit dealt with 98 HBS incidents in that year, mostly resolved peacefully either through negotiation or surrender.
Less than 20 ended in an intervention and, in three cases, bodies were recovered.
In addition, the ASU responded to 4,390 “higher-risk spontaneous incidents” in 2019.
The shooting at Manorfields was not a drawn-out HBS situation — it was over in minutes at the house and 20 minutes since the EuroSpar incident.
While the Gsoc investigation will forensically examine the shooting itself and the events leading up to it, there may be little examination or comment on the mental health intervention Mr Nkencho needed to receive or was receiving.
But the tragedy does highlight, as senior forensic psychiatrists have done before, the lack of early interventions, including in-patient facilities, for adults with serious psychiatric disorders who may pose a threat to themselves or others.
The issue of mental health demands on gardaí, and the need for other state agencies to become centrally involved, was a key issue in the Future of Policing in Ireland Commission report, published in September 2018.
It called for multi-agency “crisis intervention teams” — comprising gardaí, mental health, childcare, and addiction experts — at divisional level. It was a recommendation made by the Mental Health Commission and An Garda Síochána as far back in 2009.
This is not to say such interventions would have prevented this tragedy.
The Garda report said that 69% of the HBS cases in 2019 related to people “suffering from mental health issues”.
Said one senior garda: “Any one of those HBS cases has the potential to turn out like this [Mr Nkencho]. You train the men on the ground to try and save lives and make the decisions, and then, justify it.”
More in this section Friends of George Nkencho protest outside Blanchardstown Garda station. Picture: Niall Carson/PA WireProtesters are calling for justice. Picture: Niall Carson/PA WireThe protest in Blanchardstown. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire