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PSNI praised by HMIC but told to improve its grievance procedures

Northern Ireland’s police officers have made huge gains in community relations but the force is a long way from being diverse, according to inspectors.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been rated good by HM Inspectorate and praised for its performance in a complex situation due to the legacy of The Troubles.

Despite years of political stalemate – and the lack of investment in infrastructure or equipment as a result – the force has established good relationships with schools and some community leaders.

But it does not monitor its use of force or stop and search powers closely enough the HMICFRS inspection said. PSNI also needs to do more to improve its grievance processes for officers and be more consistent in developing talent.

Concern was also raised by HM Inspectorate that its approach to wellbeing is disjointed, with long waiting times to access mental health support compared with other kinds of support.

Many staff expressed a lack of confidence in the performance review system.

The force was also urged to invest in Tasers for frontline officers. 

Meeting the recommendation of the Patten inquiry to achieve a workforce that is 50-50 Catholic and Protestant is still a long way off. The report revealed there are two Protestant officers for every Catholic but there was praise from the inspectorate about how this is being tackled.

PSNI is considered by other forces to be the benchmark for diversity and recruitment. HM Inspectorate was of a similar view in its assessment of work to bridge the sectarian divide on its own team: “That disparity is a complex problem that the service won’t be able to address on its own. But the considerable efforts it has made in this area impressed us.”

The force was also praised for the way it deals with corruption issues.

The report follows a tough six months for its officers. Community relations have been intensified by the Brexit negotiations and a summer of anti-social behaviour. The force has also had to call in National Police Chiefs’ Chairman Martin Hewitt to review conduct at the funeral of a senior Republican during the lockdown.

Chief Constable Simon Byrne has faced criticism which began at the start of the year when he was photographed with armed officers during the Christmas break. He has also had to appoint new members of his top team and battle for more funding to pay for crumbling buildings.

But overall, the Inspectorate said the force had performed remarkably well.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: “The PSNI operates in a particularly complicated social and political environment. This can make it difficult for the service to build a positive relationship with some communities. In this context, it has done well to inspire confidence.

“The service treats the public fairly and respectfully. There are signs that the historically difficult relationship between the PSNI and some Catholic communities is improving.”

Earlier this year, Northern Ireland’s finance watchdog warned PSNI would have to rethink its approach to finance and efficiency. At the start of the austerity era it had made basic savings but stopped all work when power-sharing collapsed.

The force was given a further prompt to rethink how it handled the post-COVID era.

HMI Parr said: “PSNI is generally effective at keeping people safe and reducing crime. It also largely offers a service that is good value for money. PSNI has responded well to our previous recommendations in these areas. We would however like to see some clarity over the longer-term funding arrangements set by the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said it was a positive report that fairly reflected the force’s work with communities.

 “The inspection has shown that we have improved our response to preventing crime and tackling anti-social behaviour. It has also shown how we continue to plan well for the future and have a good understanding of the changing demands for the Service.

 “We are also pleased to see our efforts to improve our wellbeing provision, to our officers and staff, and we will continue to work to make it more accessible.”

He added that the supply of Tasers would continue to be limited to a small group of specialist officers. He was also upbeat about future financial planning, despite current uncertainties.

 “The HMICFRS report recognises that recent events have made the issue of funding even more pressing, including the difficulty the Service faces in making long-term plans, due to the short-term nature of its funding. However, the PSNI has worked well to develop its plans for the future and the inspection has shown that we are using our resources effectively to keep people safe and reduce crime”.

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