Ciaran O'Neill: My poignant chat with PSNI officer gunned down in Omagh

Taking these gunmen off the streets is a priority for the PSNI

Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell

Ciaran O'NeillSunday World

A few weeks ago, I sat in an office at Strand Road police station in Derry with Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell.

We were there to discuss a successful PSNI operation he had led.

It was a case involving the manslaughter of a pensioner in Derry.

Two women had been convicted of carrying out the attack.

It was clear at the meeting the pride DCI Caldwell took in his work, which had helped to bring the two culprits to justice.

However, while acknowledging the role he and his team had played in the investigation, he also stressed the importance of the community response in helping police catch the two killers.

DCI Caldwell, who has been involved in many high-profile murder investigations in Northern Ireland, praised those who had come forward with information about the Derry attack.

“As a result of their actions, the community is now a safer place and these two people are off the streets,” he told me.

Poignant words given what happened DCI Caldwell on Wednesday night.

The senior PSNI officer’s colleagues will be hoping for a similar community response as they try to find the two people who tried to kill him at a sports centre in Omagh.

Taking these gunmen off the streets is a priority for the PSNI.

DCI Caldwell, a 48-year-old father of one, who has been a police officer for 26 years, was shot several times in the car park of the sports centre.

He had just finished up overseeing a coaching session with the Beragh Swifts Under-15 football team.

One of the players is DCI Caldwell’s 12-year-old son who witnessed the shocking attack on his dad.

Through his volunteer role with Beragh Swifts, DCI Caldwell was at the heart of his community.

This, however, made him an easy target for his would-be killers.

They clearly knew his routine.

They knew he would be at the sports centre on Wednesday night.

They waited until he was at his most vulnerable when loading footballs into the boot of his car to make their deadly move just after 8pm.

The impact on the people who witnessed the shooting, particularly the youngsters who were there, will be long-lasting.

The fact the off-duty police officer was targeted while volunteering with his local football team made the attack even more shocking.

For many people, Celine McStravick, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, summed it up well.

“Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell was making Northern Ireland a better place, not just through his police work but through his work with young people in his community,” she said.

The focus is now on catching those responsible.

The car park and sports centre were busy with children being dropped off or picked up. A GAA team and an athletics club were also training at the centre.

Investigating officers, who have already carried out a forensic examination of the scene, will be hoping that witnesses come forward.

The PSNI have asked anyone who has dash-cam footage from their vehicles to get in touch. There may be homes or businesses with CCTV cameras which caught footage.

There may also be people with photos taken on the night which may throw up a crucial piece of evidence.

The response of the community will be a key part of the investigation into the attempted murder of DCI Caldwell.

The gunmen, who police believe are members of the New IRA, may be part of that same community.

Hundreds of people yesterday took part in a “Walk of Solidarity” in Beragh and a rally in Omagh in support of the Caldwell family.

Speaker after speaker highlighted their disgust at what happened.

While those words will bring comfort to DCI Caldwell and his police colleagues, they will also be hoping for actions as well, in terms of important information being shared with those investigating the attack.

As we spoke at Strand Road police station a few weeks ago, DCI Caldwell stressed how he always sought the support of the local community when investigating crimes.

He needs that support now more than ever.

Anyone with information can contact the incident room on 101 and ask for extension 56314. Please quote reference CCS 1831 0f 22/02/23. Alternatively, contact the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

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