Policing Board criticises PSNI after The Detail probe shows Catholics are more likely to be arrested

A police officer on Sydenham Road in east Belfast. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

A police officer on Sydenham Road in east Belfast. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

FIGURES showing that Catholics are much more likely to be arrested by the PSNI than Protestants were never shared with the Policing Board until an investigation by The Detail, a new report has revealed.

In December 2021, The Detail reported that almost twice as many Catholics as Protestants were arrested and charged over a five-year-period in Northern Ireland.

From the start of 2016 until the end of 2020, more than 57,000 Catholics were arrested, with almost 27,000 charged.

During the same period, almost 31,000 Protestants were arrested, with under 15,000 charged.

The Policing Board’s annual human rights report, published today, said the statistics “raise some questions about fairness in policing of the two main communities of Northern Ireland”.

The report pointed out that although the figures were collected by the PSNI for years, they were never published or raised with the Policing Board - the force’s oversight body.

The board also questioned why the PSNI did not investigate whether the figures were reflective of potential discrimination until the issue was raised by The Detail.

“What is surprising is that, despite these statistics being collected by PSNI for the last few years (and possible for longer), they were never published and the Policing Board was apparently not aware of them,” the report read.

“It is also surprising that the PSNI took no action to investigate the basis of these statistics and whether or not this prima facie disproportionality constituted unlawful discrimination.”

The board said the statistics did not necessarily mean the force was intentionally discriminatory, “but rather it might suggest unconscious unlawful indirect discrimination”.

The report also noted that many of those who were asked about their background declined to answer.

“There may be a number of different reasons for this disparity, including the possibility that people from the Catholic community are more willing to answer questions about their religious background,” the report read.

The report recommended that the PSNI employ an independent expert to look at the figures.

“Given the history of the PSNI dealing with the difficult issue of policing all communities throughout Northern Ireland, the PSNI should engage an independent equality expert to assist with its analysis of the information and development of an action plan,” the report read.

“In the meantime, the PSNI should collect, collate, and compare the community background statistics of those arrested and charged with the figures of those subsequently prosecuted.”

In March 2022, the PSNI’s Police Powers Development Group was asked to investigate the arrest figures.

The Detail asked the PSNI if the group had completed its investigation and why figures on the religious breakdown of arrests were never shared with the board.

However, the force simply responded with a general statement by PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton on the board’s report.

“Human Rights are central to everything we do as police officers and the oversight provided by the Policing Board is key to maintaining public confidence in policing,” he said.

“We will continue to work alongside the Policing Board’s Independent Human Rights adviser as we consider and respond to the content of these wide-ranging reports.”

A police officer in east Belfast. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

A police officer in east Belfast. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

Spit and bite guards

The Policing Board report also noted that the use of spit and bite guards raised questions about the policing of the two main communities.

Figures revealed by the board show that guards were used on 84 people between March 16 and December 31 2020.

Of the 84 people, 40 were Catholic and 17 were Protestant.

Catholics were also more likely to be stopped and searched under anti-terrorism powers.

Of those stopped between August 2020 and July 2021, 45% were Catholic and 24% were Protestant.

The board stated that the PSNI has a responsibility to adhere to equality legislation, including under the Northern Ireland Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.

“To fail to do so creates a prima facie violation of the Convention (which, of course may also be unlawful under domestic law),” the report stated.

“The fact that the statistics indicate some kind of disproportionality does not necessarily

mean that PSNI or its officers are involved in any intentional discrimination (which is obviously unlawful), but rather it might suggest unconscious unlawful indirect discrimination.”

The report made a series of recommendations on how the PSNI operates.

The recommendations included that the PSNI provide a confidential report to the board’s human rights advisor, John Wadham, on the use of informers.

A new UK law introduced in 2021 gives immunity to informers who commit criminal acts, which the board noted “makes lawful an already widespread practice”.

Use of force report

A separate Policing Board report into the PSNI’s use of force questioned why all officers are routinely armed despite the “reduction in the security threat level in Northern Ireland”.

It stated that the PSNI should review whether only specially-trained officers are allowed to hold firearms, as is the case in Britain and the Republic.

The report also recommended that independent research should be carried out into injuries suffered by people hit by police baton rounds - known as Attenuating Energy Projectiles (AEPs).

Policing Board Chair Deirdre Toner said: “The findings and recommendations made in these latest detailed reports reinforce the importance of oversight, ensuring the Police Service continues to meet its human rights responsibilities and delivers a rights-based approach in all aspects of its service.”

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