Man shot after firing an air pistol at officer posed 'immediate threat to life'

A man who was shot dead after firing an air pistol at an Avon and Somerset Constabulary officer was lawfully killed, an inquest jury has ruled.

Mar 18, 2020
By Tony Thompson
Spencer Ashworth

Delivery driver Spencer Ashworth, 29, had been driving south on the M5 near Bristol on September 27, 2017, when police received reports of a man waving a handgun and firing at another motorist.

Firearms officers stopped Mr Ashworth at 9.32am, who was alone in his red Suzuki Swift, and surrounded his car with police vehicles. The officers attempted to talk with Mr Ashworth for more than 30 seconds but he did not comply with instructions to show his hands and get out of the vehicle.

He was then seen to aim a handgun at one of the officers and fire it. Four armed officers discharged a total of 15 rounds from their Glock handguns in the space of four seconds.

Police and paramedics attempted CPR but Mr Ashworth had sustained fatal wounds to his head and chest and died at the scene.

Later investigations showed the weapon was a Walther air pistol, designed to look like a genuine Walther P99 semi-automatic pistol. The air pistol had been fired twice during the incident, causing a superficial injury to the thigh of one officer.

Following a two-week inquest, a jury at Avon Coroner’s Court concluded on Tuesday (March 17) that Mr Ashworth had been lawfully killed.

Following the conclusion of the inquest, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) released the findings of its investigation into the incident, which found the officers involved followed policies and procedures.

Catrin Evans, regional director for the IOPC, said: “The evidence shows officers initially provided loud, clear and unambiguous verbal instructions to Mr Ashworth, which sadly he did not comply with. The fact that four armed officers fired simultaneously can, in our opinion, be considered an indication that each of them, concurrently and instinctively, perceived there to be an immediate threat to life.

“We believe that the pistol in the hands of Mr Ashworth, and pointed in the manner that it was, would have had the appearance of a real firearm. All key policing witnesses engaged positively with the post-incident procedures, and provided detailed accounts, which included their honestly held beliefs.”

“I send my condolences to Mr Ashworth’s family and everyone affected by this tragic incident.”

The IOPC said it had “identified learning” that all authorised firearms officers should be reminded of the requirement to start filming on their bodycams when they are authorised and directed to a firearms incident.

The IOPC also examined the actions of West Mercia Police and the Central Motorway Policing Group (CMPG) and how they dealt with information received from a member of the public an hour before the shooting, who reported he had been shot at by a man driving a red car further north on the M5.

The IOPC said: “There was a delay in passing on this significant information to Avon and Somerset Constabulary, which in our view did not amount to any case to answer for misconduct but raised a performance issue for a West Mercia call handler.

“A West Midlands Police constable attached to the CMPG was also asked to learn and reflect on the way he dealt with the incident. We have been advised that improvements have been made to information sharing arrangements between the forces since the incident.”

The inquest heard Mr Ashworth was a keen skateboarder and talented artist but struggled with bouts of depression. In an email sent to his mother a month before his death, he referred to “my new James Bond air pistol” and described how he wanted to go to California “before I have to shoot it out with the police”.

Mr Ashworth, who was awaiting two prosecutions, had warning markers for violence, mental health and suicide on his Police National Computer record.

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