Four of the officers cleared of wrongdoing over the James Ashley shooting said they hoped their experience would not deter other officers from doing their duty.

Superintendent Inspector Christopher Burton, Detective Inspector Kevin French, Detective Inspector Christopher Siggs and PC Robert Shoesmith, were all cleared of abuse of public office.

In a statement yesterday, the men said they all wished to make it clear they regretted the death of James Ashley.

It said: "We were acting professionally, responsibly and diligently to safeguard the community in Sussex from dealers in hard drugs and violent criminals, believed to have access to firearms."

The men said they were relieved that after three years they had been cleared.

Their statement said: "The investigation into our conduct generated sweeping allegations that were wholly unfounded. Any suggestion of dishonesty on our part has finally been withdrawn.

"It is very regrettable that it should have taken so long for the truth and our integrity to be acknowledged.

"We hope other police officers, who have observed the way we have been treated and the time taken to prove our innocence, will not be deterred from performing their duty when faced with the need to make similar decisions."

Inspector Graham Alexander, chairman of Sussex Police Federation, which had supported the officers throughout a series of court hearings that started in February, said he was delighted the men had been acquitted.

He added: "Hard-working police officers doing their jobs have always accepted accountability for their actions. We have the very best police service in the world.

"However, we should be greatly concerned at the disturbing veracity of a criminal inquiry that has always been at a loss to explain itself, an inquiry that has taken more than three years to establish what was known many months ago, namely, that no criminal offences have been committed by these officers.

"Notwithstanding all the checks and balances, the system has served no one's interest and leaves in its wake an air of bewilderment."

Mr Alexander said it was all too easy for "armchair critics" but the officers involved were trying to keep the streets of Hastings safe.

He said the issues raised during the case would need to be looked at closely.