The Police Ombudsman's Office provides independent and impartial investigation of complaints about the police in Northern Ireland.
The Office opened in November 2000, replacing the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC). Its opening marked the beginning of an entirely new system for investigating complaints against police officers in Northern Ireland.
Previously, complaints against police were investigated by other police officers. The Police Ombudsman's Office, however, has its own teams of professional investigators.
Currently, about 3,000 complaints per year are made about police officers in Northern Ireland. These include complaints about use of force by police officers, and allegations that officers failed to do their jobs properly or were rude or offensive during the course of their duties.
In addition, the Police Ombudsman investigates:
In most circumstances the Police Ombudsman can investigate only incidents that have occurred in the previous 12 months. However, there is no time limit on the investigation of grave matters, or where exceptional circumstances exist. As a result, the Police Ombudsman has investigated many complaints from the relatives of people who died during 'the Troubles' (the conflict in Northern Ireland during the final three decades of the 20th Century).
We are also considering a large number of cases as part of the historic cases review of all Troubles-related deaths between 1968 and 1998. The law requires that all cases in which the actions of a police officer may have led to a death must be independently investigated. As a result, many cases have been referred to this Office by the Historical Enquiries Team.*
Following an investigation - if the evidence suggests that police officers have broken the law or breached the police Code of Ethics - the Police Ombudsman can recommend that they are prosecuted or disciplined. Currently about 3% of complaints result in some form of sanction against officers, the majority of which is informal disciplinary action.
The Police Ombudsman can also make recommendations for improvements to police policies and procedures.
Whether there is evidence to support the complaint or not, the Police Ombudsman will inform both parties to the complaint of its outcome and in certain cases may make a general statement about the findings.
The law requires that the Police Ombudsman "shall exercise his powers...in such a manner and to such extent as appears to him to be best calculated to secure...the confidence of the public and of members of the police force in that system." (Section 51 (4)b of the Police Northern Ireland Act 1998).
* Footnote: On 28 January 2009 the Consultative Group on the Past recommended that this historic work, and the work of the the Historic Enquiries Team, be transferred to a new investigative body as part of the proposals for dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland's past. These proposals are now under consideration by the Government.