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More protection needed for PSNI officers' human rights

The Northern Ireland Policing Board has set out nine recommendations to improve the PSNI’s compliance with human rights standards regarding those working within policing.

The PSNI has been tasked with implementing a number of measures after a first-of-its kind report highlighted multiple issues with how effectively the service ensures the human rights of its staff.

Written by the NI Policing Board (Board), the report made nine recommendations for improvement after a dozen staff associations were consulted by a Human Rights Advisor engaged to assess their experience.

The right to life, to privacy, and to a fair trial were among those referenced in the report, with its recommendations approved by the Board last month.

Its Chair Deidre Toner promised to continue scrutinising the PSNI so that the "lessons identified in this report are implemented".

A key issue was officer wellbeing, both physical and mental.

Identifying a 'perceived lack of psychological support' felt by some of those consulted following instances of assault, this was raised as a particular concern given that incidents have been steadily rising since 2017.

In that year, there were 662 assaults on a constable with injury, and 2,007 without. Fast forward to 2021, and those numbers read as 906 and 2,476.

While those who assault emergency workers in England and Wales can now receive a 12-month custodial sentence thanks to new legislation introduced in 2018, there is no such specific provision regarding assaults on emergency workers in Northern Ireland.

The Board and the PSNI have been tasked with encouraging the Assembly to consider whether the current legislation goes far enough for emergency workers.

In terms of mental wellbeing, the Ethnic Minority Police Association said that its officers frequently feel threatened by racially motivated violence and intimidation from the public, and that there is 'often a lack of support and empathy offered to these officers by the service' when such incidents happen.

The Catholic Guild of Police said the same in respect of its officers' routine experience of sectarianism.

To address these issues, the force has been asked to consult directly with staff associations to produce a plan, a copy of which is to be provided to the Board by spring 2023.

As part of protecting female officers and staff, the PSNI has been asked to recognise the urgency of tackling misogyny within its ranks.

When consulted, the the Women in Policing Association NI advised they had a 'concern over a harmful culture of misogyny within the PSNI which in some cases has been connected to actual violence against women'.

Two illustrations of this are included in the report. Firstly, of the 126 incidents investigated by the PSNI PSD between April 2021 and March 2022, approximately 16% were domestic related. 

Secondly, the Police Ombudsman recorded 40 allegations of sexual assault against officers in 2021/22. This accounted for roughly 3% of 1,228 Oppressive Behaviour allegations made during this period.

With respect to an officer's right to a fair trial, the report identifies independence and delay as live issues.

Misconduct hearings are currently chaired by a PSNI ACC, who sits alongside another senior officer and an independent person. 

Comparing this set-up with that in England and Wales - where panels are chaired by a Legally Qualified Person - the report said: 'Although there is an independent appeals system, administered by the Policing Board, for PSNI officers subject to disciplinary action by a misconduct panel, there is a case for ensuring greater independence of the misconduct panel itself.'

Delay was flagged by many of the consulted staff associations and a report by the Police Ombudsman, which collected information from officers who were the subject of an investigation closed during 2021/22.

While largely positive feelings were expressed in terms of treatment, 54% of surveyed officers felt that 'significant delays' existed in resolving their investigations.

The PSNI has informed the Human Rights Advisor that terms of reference are being finalised for a continuous improvement project for the PSD, aimed at improving efficiency, effectiveness and transparency.

A number of recommendations have been made in this area. The Board is to request that the Department of Justice review the misconduct regulations, with a view to improving the use of the current legislation alongside exploring the possibility for change.

After the report's publication, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland said: "We welcome the acknowledgement and recommendations relating to upholding police officer Human Rights and particularly strongly endorse the legislative proposal to ensure those who assault our officers are dealt with effectively by the Courts."

The PSNI' Chief Operating Officer, Pamela McCreedy, said: “The welfare and wellbeing of our people is a central priority for the Police Service and the main pillar of our People Strategy.

"We will take the time to study the findings and recommendations contained in this report carefully, and work closely with our staff associations and the Northern Ireland Policing Board to take forward the appropriate next steps.”

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