The Police Ombudsman: value for money?

The Ombudsman building

The Ombudsman building

IT has cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer over £90m to fund the Police Ombudsman’s office since it started…and yet the police watchdog can’t say how many convictions have resulted from their investigations.

An investigation by The Detail has discovered that the Police Ombudsman’s office [PONI] can’t actually say how many criminal convictions there were between November 2000, when their offices opened, and the present.

“Our systems do not record final outcomes,” we were told in a written response to a series of questions under Freedom of Information.

However, because of a change in the way information is collated, they can now tell us that from December 2008 to present, two officers have been convicted of criminal charges and two others have been given adult cautions.

In addition, only last week following a Police Ombudsman’s investigation, a police constable was convicted of perverting the course of justice by fabricating a witness statement in 2009. He will be sentenced next month.

It was very different when we first submitted a series of Freedom of Information questions on December 9 2011. Then the Police Ombudsman’s office didn’t have a clue about how many convictions there were.

That was made very clear from their response on January 20 this year when they said: “Our systems do not record complaints by the specific crime alleged, such as theft. Nor do they record the final outcomes of the matter, such as whether an officer was prosecuted or disciplined. The only record whether we make recommendations for such actions.”

CRIMINAL PROSECUTION RECOMMENDATIONS

They could, however, say how many cases the Public Prosecution Service [PPS] had directed that there be criminal prosecutions.

“In compiling material for our publication, ‘Developments in Police Complaints – Ten Years On,’ which is on our website, our research team undertook a particular piece of work which recorded that between 2001-02 and March 2010, the PPS had directed 62 criminal charges as a result of Police Ombudsman investigations.”

The range of offences covered by the 62 criminal charges were as follows:-

Table 1

Table 1

PONI cited another reason for the lack of coherent figures. A change in the way in which the statistics were collated was made in 2009. So the figures that come after that date are not compatable.

PONI explained it this way: “The 2001-2009 and the 2009-2010 figures are not comparable and cannot be added together. During the first period the figures are based on the number of complaints but in the second period they are based on allegation numbers – one complaint can have several allegations.”

What is clear is that since opening in 2000, the Police Ombudsman has recommended 152 charges to the PPS – common assault recommendations top the list at 30 with 22 for assault causing bodily harm. There were 19 recommendations for perverting the course of justice and four of obstructing the Police Ombudsman.

But the Police Ombudsman also made recommendations to the PSNI about how some cases should be dealt with. From 2001-2009, for example, PONI made 484 suggestions that officers should receive ‘Advice and Guidance’ ; on 101 occasions tht they receive Superintendent Written Warnings and on 75 occasions that misconduct charges be taken. These figures are based on the number of complaints.

During 2009-2010 on 352 instances there where ‘Advice and Guidance’ was recommended; written warnings 34 times and 13 recommendations for misconduct. These figures are based on the number of allegations .

APOLOGIES TO OFFICERS FOR INVESTIGATION FAILINGS

Meanwhile, The Detail has discovered a number of examples of where Sam Pollock, the chief executive of the Police Ombudsman’s officer from 2000 to 2011, had issued written to serving or former police officers apologising for failings in the way they had been treated during investigation by PONI.

A PONI spokesperson said: “From an examination of our ‘maladministration’ files I have found 17 instances when the former Chief Executive, or someone on his behalf, apologised to serving or former police officers following complaints made by them.

“Most of these apologies appear to relate to a failure in our processes and often to delay on our part.”

After further discussions, we received additional Freedom of Information answers on March 20, 2012. In a response to our request to see letters of apology from the Chief Executive, we were given some examples.

“I have included 14 such letters,” said the PONI spokesperson, “redacted to prevent indentification of any of the individuals. I have omitted three other letters which seem to be duplication of a letter included.”

One of the letters we received – dated February 9 this year – dealt with a police inspector based in Ballymena. He had been investigated in 2010 over the manner in which he handled a fatal road traffic crash the previous year.

The outcome of the PONI investigation was that the inspector received a Superintendent’s Written Warning in July 2010. The inspector successfully appealed against the written warning…but went on to complain in October 2010 about maladministration in the way the Police Ombudsman’s office investigated the complaint against him.

The conclusions by Paul Holmes, director of historic investigations in PONI are quite startling.

First he acknowledged “a fundamental failure” in the investigation strategy of the Police Ombudsman’s investigation “which led to a lack of focus on the emerging issues and served to undermine subsequent minconduct recommendations. This was the principal flaw in the investigation.”

Mr Holmes continued: “It is clear that the Police Ombudsman’s investigation reported factual inaccuracies which arose from a failure to pursue a number of basic enquiries to a proper conclusion.

“While I do not believe there was any intent on the part of XXXXXXXX [redacted name of PONI investigator] to be unprofessional in his dealings with your solicitor, the Police Ombudsman expects all his investigators to be prudent in their language when discussing investigations so as to ensure that no perception of anything other than thoroughness, independence and impartiality arises.”

Mr Holmes said there was no evidence of the most serious allegation “that the Police Ombudsman’s investigation was influenced by an external party”.