'Handling of historical cases has lowered independence of Police Ombudsman's office' says Chief Inspector
Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland has today published the findings of its inspection into the independence of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI) from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
The inspection, which was carried out at the request from the Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson, found the legislative framework on which OPONI operates to be solid and provides a strong framework for the operational independence of a police complaints body.
"With some exceptions Inspectors heard no major concerns around the investigation of current cases. This work makes up the majority of the work of the Police Ombudsman's office and involves the investigation of current cases where complaints are lodged by members of the public against serving police officers," said Dr Michael Maguire, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland
"However significant concerns were identified around how sensitive, complex and high profile historical cases are currently investigated and handled.
"The Inspectorate believes that the ways in which the Police Ombudsman's office has dealt with these cases has served to undermine rather than enhance its decision-making capacity. As a consequence of these contributory factors, its operational independence has been lowered," said the Chief Inspector.
Outlining his concerns, Dr Maguire said the inspection team had identified flawed investigative processes. He also indicated that reports had been heavily influenced and buffeted by feedback from non-governmental organisations, families, their legal representatives and the PSNI.
"This has led to a lack of confidence in how the investigative processes are managed within OPONI and an inconsistent approach to how families are briefed on the investigation findings," said Dr Maguire.
Inspectors he stated had also identified issues around the handling and use of sensitive material. This had generated a lack of confidence and mistrust among investigators.
Evidence of serious divisions were also found within the senior management of the organisation which has affected the operation of the Police Ombudsman's office.
"This split created a dysfunctional environment that has impacted on OPONI's day-to-day functions and the morale and attitude of staff. It has also led to a fractured approach to governance and decision-making, particularly around the production of reports," said Dr Maguire.
The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland said that in response he had made six recommendations aimed at addressing the significant management issues identified in the inspection report.
Central to these recommendations is the suspension of historical case investigation until the strategic plan for the Historical Investigations Directorate has been adequately resourced and becomes fully operational.
Commenting on the overall findings of the inspection report Dr Maguire said: "Confidence in the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is critical.
"The police need to believe complaints against them will be treated fairly and impartially while the community requires confidence that the accountability mechanisms in place are robust and able to deal with concerns around policing."
He continued: "This inspection has highlighted the flawed nature of the investigation processes in historical cases, concerns around the handling of sensitive material and divisions within senior management. These issues have undermined confidence in the work of the Office of the Police Ombudsman among some staff and key stakeholders.
"It is an urgent requirement that these matters are addressed in response to this inspection report," concluded Dr Maguire.