The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has formally launched a criminal investigation into the fatal shooting by an armed garda of George Nkencho in west Dublin last week.
The decision is part of a procedural process within Gsoc and follows an initial examination of the incident and a decision that a full investigation into “potential” criminal offences is required.
Various sources have stressed this does not mean it suspects the garda who shot Mr Nkencho committed a criminal offence, but that a full investigation is needed to determine whether that is the case.
The same process was instituted in the Gsoc investigation into the shooting dead by a garda of Mark Hennessy in May 2018, which resulted in the DPP directing that no criminal prosecution should be taken against the garda.
A Gsoc spokesperson said: “We can confirm the investigation is now being conducted in accordance with section 98 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005.”
The decision follows a preliminary examination of the incident under section 91 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005.
Gsoc is now undertaking an investigation under section 98 of the Act, which is for the “purpose of investigating incidents that appear to involve offences”.
Mr Nkencho was fatally shot outside his home on Manorfields Drive, Clonee, Dublin, shortly after 12.30 on December 30 by a member of the Garda Armed Support Unit.
Garda statements have said that Mr Nkencho had threatened people and unarmed gardaí with a knife at Hartstown Shopping Centre after he allegedly assaulted a shop worker.
Gardaí have said that when Mr Nkencho got to the house, he threatened the officers with a knife and they implemented a graduated response, using less than lethal weapons.
Gardaí say two discharges of a Taser and a discharge of pepper-spray were unsuccessful and shots were fired.
There were around 12 gardaí at the scene and several members of Mr Nkencho's family in the house.
Gsoc will try to determine if the garda had an honest belief there was an immediate threat to the life of people at or near the scene and assess whether his actions were necessary and proportionate.
On completion of its investigation, its file will first be examined by the three commissioners who head GSOC, after which it will most likely be submitted to the DPP for consideration.
Video footage of the incident recorded five shots being discharged.
Autopsy results have not been released by Gsoc, but Garda sources suggest Mr Nkencho was shot twice in the torso and once, possibly twice, in the arm.
Lawyers for his family have been granted an independent autopsy by the coroner and are trying to make arrangements.
His remains were due to be released on Friday, but funeral arrangements will depend on the completion of the second autopsy.
A GoFundMe campaign for funeral and legal costs has so far raised €22,240, with some 1,200 people donating.
Phelim O'Neill, solicitor for the family, said in a statement issued tonight that he welcomed the confirmation from Gsoc that the probe will now be designated as a criminal investigation.
In previous correspondence with Gsoc, Mr O’Neill called upon the ombudsman to “ensure that the matter is treated as a serious criminal investigation with all resources as may be required, furnished, and availed of”. It is now, for the first time, a real and distinct possibility on the conclusion of the Gsoc investigation that members of An Garda Síochána will be criminally prosecuted for their actions in shooting Mr Nkencho to death, he said.
Mr O’Neill said he remains extremely concerned by what appears to be a distinct lack of urgency on the part of Gsoc in its approach to the investigation, pointing to the letter he received today in which Gsoc was unable to specify when they will be in a position to take witness statements from Mr Nkencho’s three siblings who were eye-witnesses of their brother’s shooting outside the front door of their family home. He said this admission is made in circumstances where it is acknowledged in the same letter by the investigating officer that these statements are “vital to the investigation”.
He added that he was concerned by the admission of Gsoc that “the exact number of gardaí present or number of shots fired has not yet been confirmed".
Meanwhile, the Methodist Church in Ireland has said the circumstances leading to the fatal shooting of Mr Nkencho “must be thoroughly investigated”.
A statement issued by Rev Dr Tom McKnight, president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, president designate, said: “Along with the Methodist Church in Ireland, we are shocked and saddened by the killing of George Nkencho in the garden of his home in Clonee, west Dublin, on December 30.
"Our deepest sympathy goes out to his family. The loss of a deeply loved member of their family at such a young age is an unbearable pain for anyone to carry.
It said: “The nature of George’s death is obviously one that has brought incredible shock to those who knew him and to the wider community and country. The various factors that led to him being shot must be thoroughly investigated.
"With this in mind, the investigation by Gsoc must be given its place and nothing should hamper those seeking to examine the details of what happened. It is crucial that all who feel involved in this situation engage at this time with the Gsoc investigation.”
They said they are extremely concerned about “false information” circulating on social media relating to Mr Nkencho himself and his death. “He was a young man without previous criminal convictions from a close family," read the statement.
"Such misinformation is not only deeply dishonouring to George and his family, but very dangerous.”
The church leaders said: “We wholeheartedly denounce any expression of violence towards members of An Garda Síochána.”
They added: “Very disturbingly, there has been vile material posted and shared in recent days that is disgusting and blatantly racist. We call on all who observe any such hate crime material to report it to An Garda Síochána.”