A Benchmark for Policing? The Police Ombudsman speaks to the Andersonstown News

Andersonstown News reporter Jarlath Kearney speaks to the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, about her role in one of the most high-profile jobs in the North and asks what she plans to do, both inside and outside of the PSNI, about the deep-rooted problems which still exist in relation to policing

Formidable, but not intimidating. Formal, but not overbearing. Self-assured, but not arrogant. Politicised, but not (openly) political.

Nuala O’Loan – the Police Ombudsman – has become a controversial and high-profile figure in the North’s policing world.

Since taking the newly-formed position three years ago, she has become a necessary port of call for many maligned and abused complainants seeking justice in the face of alleged misconduct by the RUC and PSNI.

On top of that she contends with a defensive police force, an interested and well-connected press, and an insidious and persistent campaign from powerful interests who want her office banjaxed or neutured (or preferably both at the same time).

The north of Ireland is a very small place in which to do a very big job.
And as Police Ombudsman, it is Nuala O’Loan’s responsibility to “provide an independent, impartial police complaints system for the people and the police under the Police (N.I.) Act 1998 and 2000”.

Whilst acknowledging the view that her office will be judged both by its results – as well as by the ongoing actions of PSNI members on the ground – Mrs O’Loan firmly argues that change is happening within the PSNI.
“What I have found is that, in doing investigations, we are finding police officers who are prepared to give evidence against their colleagues. We’re not meeting a thick blue wall any more.

“No good, positive police officer wants those who are criminals in their ranks. Nor do they want those who hold the public in contempt in their ranks and therefore they see that there is a value in the organisation and in the service that we operate.”

With a joint ‘gold group’ established between the PSNI and the Ombudsman’s Office, Mrs O’Loan says that investigations are now being expedited in a more efficient manner.
“Sometimes, without any malice intended, there can be delays,” she says.
“What we are trying to do is speed up the bits [of investigations] that are within our control and the police are working with us and co-operating with us on that.

“I think the police reaction, for example, to the Sean Brown case does show significant movement if you compare it to the reaction to the Omagh report.
“This time there is simply an acceptance that it wasn’t done, that there were massive failings in this investigation. So I would see that as a significant step forward.”

The key working analysis which seems to filter throughout the staff at every level in the Ombudsman’s Office is revealing.
Essentially, this analysis appears to anchor many of the real problems with regard to the RUC and PSNI in either bad historical practices, few or outdated policies, or routine failures to properly train officers up to contemporary professional standards.

“What we have seen is that we have made a significant number of recommendations out of investigations that we have carried out, and they have been recommendations around police training and police policies and that sort of thing, and there have been significant changes to training and to policy on foot of those recommendations.

“I think the end result of that is that officers are thinking in terms of the new policies and the new recommendations rather than perhaps in the way they might have performed in the past.
“It is against the Code of Ethics that we measure their behaviour at the present time, so that it says things about the way an officer goes out and investigates and the way he must behave. Those are the standards that we are measuring them against now.

“In the historic cases, in the older cases which predate the introduction of the Code of Ethics, yes, we measure them against different things, but now we have got a different benchmark,” she says.

When pushed to specify where improvements are still required in the PSNI, Nuala O’Loan admits that she “remains concerned about aspects of policing”.
But she is cagey when it comes to identifying those concerns because “with the best respect, I don’t want to do things in the media”.
“There are areas where further change is required. That’s quite clear, the Oversight Commissioner has said that too, so nobody could be surprised at that.”

Mrs O’Loan’s caution seems predetermined by a need to protect her office from any unnecessary political flak and bullying.

This tactical approach may be understandable. But the Ombudsman’s reluctance, to date, to publicly identify a partisan political dimension or a sinister political pattern – alongside bad practices and failed policies – when examining the failures of the RUC and PSNI, is still perceived as a weakness in some quarters.
With allegations of collusion between state forces and, specifically, loyalist paramilitaries now forming the backdrop to many of her investigations, Mrs O’Loan says she believes that her office has the necessary powers to take action over the issue.

“Collusion is a word we use to describe a thousand things.

“There is no criminal offence called ‘collusion’.

“I think there are sufficient existing criminal offences. I think the issue is not that there is no criminal offence.

“I don’t think it is a lack of definition. If any police officer is involved in anything unlawful, then by definition he commits a criminal offence and by definition he could be prosecuted for it.

“The issue is getting the evidence and part of the problem is that people need to come forward with the evidence and people can be very, very afraid.
“In the investigation into the murder of Sean Brown I think that one of the reasons people didn’t co-operate was that these people had come into Bellaghy and murdered Sean Brown. Would they come back?”

In terms of how PSNI officers – either serving or retired – co-operate with her investigations, Mrs O’Loan says that she is bound by constitutional laws.
“The officer who has perverted the course of justice I can pursue. I can pursue for any criminal offence.
“What I can’t do is make them give me evidence. But we have constitutional laws that protect people from a compulsion to give evidence and in those circumstances I don’t think it is for me to change constitutions.
“It is frustrating. There are officers who do co-operate with our investigations despite the fact that they are retired.

“There are other officers who decline to do so and it is not for me to speculate on why they might decline to do so, simply to note the fact.”
When dealing with the controversial issue of Special Branch, the Ombudsman largely concentrates her criticisms on Special Branch methods rather than Special Branch motivations.

Nuala O’Loan’s focus is, once again, on system failure – specifically, Special Branch’s reluctance to share information with criminal investigators.
“Traditionally, for example, Special Branch officers were not trained in detection. They were just simply recipients of information and sorting and analysing that information.
“The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) has imposed on them huge requirements to act in a different way.
“There is a RIPA inspector who does inspect the PSNI compliance with those issues, and those are issues that we are aware of and would look at from time to time.

“I think that Special Branch was predicated on a basis that you don’t share information, you just don’t share it – to protect the life of sources and that sort of thing.

“Those are legitimate concerns. The trouble is there have to be policies and processes that ensure that when information should be shared, it is shared,” she said.

“I think that what I would say to you is that systemic change is inevitably slow and it takes time and it takes training and I don’t think it is by any means finished or complete.”

Acknowledging that she is “sometimes surprised” by the extent of “press awareness” in certain cases, Mrs O’Loan concludes: “There are particular cases in which there is a high level of press awareness of issues and we have several of those cases under investigation. I think once we get to the end of those investigations it might be possible to draw some conclusions in trend terms.”

Journalist:: Jarlath Kearney

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