‘Lack of consistency’ in policing of protests, says Police Ombudsman

The Police Ombudsman has concluded that the police investigation into a ‘Protect Our Monuments’ protest in Belfast was “closed prematurely” following a failure to access and exploit intelligence, which may have led to the identification of the protest organisers.

Feb 7, 2023
Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson

Marie Anderson said the outcome was in contrast to the prompt identification by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) of those suspected to have been the organisers of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that same month, a number of whom were reported to the Public Prosecution Service.

She said the lack of consistency was “likely to compound damage to confidence in policing within the black, Asian and minority ethnic community”.

The Ombudsman had previously published a report in December 2020 about the policing of the Black Lives Matter protests, which did not identify systemic racism issues, but did make a series of recommendations to address concerns and assist in building trust between those communities and the police.

The conduct of officers responsible for the ‘Protect Our Monuments’ protest on June 13, 2020, came into question as a direct result of that earlier investigation around policing of ‘Black Lives Matters’ events and led to the Ombudsman’s decision to conduct an ‘own motion’ investigation into the matter.

Mrs Anderson’s review of evidence established the existence of police intelligence linking a number of individuals in an organisational capacity to the ‘Protect Our Monuments’ protest.

There was, however, an error in submitting a request for intelligence and a lack of follow-up when no response was received to the request, she added.

In addition, there was no evidence that the senior investigating officer took other relevant information relating to intelligence into account and the case was closed.

The Police Ombudsman’s investigation also established that PSNI intelligence workflows did not have a target timeframe for the provision of responses to requests for intelligence, a gap that was exacerbated by the absence of a process for notifying officers requesting this information should none be available.

She therefore made a policy recommendation that the PSNI considers the introduction of target response times for intelligence requests, including the compulsory provision of appropriate responses to officers where no intelligence was available.

In response the PSNI has issued guidance for the submission and management of intelligence requests, which places an onus on both the Intelligence Branch and officer submitting the request in terms of audit and review.

“In conducting an investigation, a police officer is required to pursue all reasonable lines of enquiry and it is evident this did not occur in this instance,” said Mrs Anderson.

“Viable lines of inquiry existed if the available intelligence had been accessed and in my view the senior investigating officer did not carry out a thorough and careful investigation.

“I had recommended disciplinary proceedings, which could not be progressed by PSNI as a result of the officer’s retirement.

“However, I also made policy recommendations in relation to the systemic failing in how PSNI handled intelligence and these have been partially addressed which I welcome.

“I also welcome the work of the PSNI since December 2020 to address the recommendations made as a result of my ‘Black Lives Matter’ investigation to build confidence in policing and ensure these communities experience policing on an equal footing.”

She added: “It is only through proactive engagement with these communities that a comprehensive insight can be secured into the level of trust and confidence they have in policing.

“This is now being reflected in the work of the PSNI Strategic Community Engagement Team, which is seeking to proactively identify a variety of issues of concern within black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”

Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton said the PSNI accepted the recommendations made by the Police Ombudsman.

He added: “These protests occurred against a backdrop of an unprecedented health crisis and rapidly changing legislation.

“During this time a key objective was to help slow the spread of the virus to keep people safe.

“Balancing this against our obligation to safeguard other important rights – such as the right to peacefully protest – was not easy and we have previously accepted that as a service, we didn’t always get that balance right.

“We continue in our work to implement the lessons learned from this period and are determined to improve relationships and build confidence and trust in policing among all communities in Northern Ireland.”

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