Published Date: 27.10.2017
Three police officers have been disciplined over failings in an investigation into images of child sexual abuse found on a man’s computer.
The images were found on computer equipment after police were alerted by the owner of a computer repair shop who became concerned at material found on a machine left with him for repair.
The owner of the equipment was subsequently jailed for making and possessing indecent images of children.
However, an investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office found that the officers failed to properly investigate whether he should also have faced charges for distributing images.
The Police Ombudsman’s enquiry was launched at the request of the Chief Constable in May 2015, in the wake of criticism of the police handling of the case.
The Judge at the man’s trial had expressed concern that police had not examined all of the images from the case, but had instead “dip sampled” a limited number.
He also criticised a lack of police enquiries into the extent to which the man may have distributed the images, even though he had made certain admissions when interviewed by police.
The Judge said that these failures may have resulted in a significant number of offenders not being held to account for their actions.
Police Ombudsman investigators found the concerns about whether police had properly investigated the distribution of indecent images to be well founded.
Police did not properly investigate whether the offender had distributed indecent images.
The officer who examined the seized devices – which included a laptop, a computer tower, and three external hard drives – produced a report that he had found indecent images of children.
The report stated that no evidence of distribution had been found on two of the hard drives, but made no conclusion in relation to the two computers and the other hard drive.
In relation to those devices, it stated only that “the internet history has been extracted and is available for viewing by the investigating officer.”
When interviewed, the investigating officer admitted that she had not examined this internet history, nor discussed the report with the examining officer.
She accepted that this was an oversight, but said she had asked the examining officer to look for evidence of distribution and would have expected him to complete the analysis in full.
“This was a significant failing,” said Dr Maguire. “In effect, nobody examined the information obtained from the man’s laptop, a computer tower and a hard drive for evidence of sharing images.”
The offender was subsequently charged and convicted of making and possessing indecent images, but was not prosecuted for distributing them.
Following the court hearing and criticism of the handling of the case, police re-examined the other devices for evidence of distribution.
This process identified two additional suspects, neither of whom lived in Northern Ireland. The PSNI passed their details on to the relevant authorities in the appropriate jurisdictions.
Police decided, however, not to take any further action against the owner of the seized items. It was considered that to do so would amount to an abuse of process, given the errors identified.
Despite these failings, the Police Ombudsman found no evidence that police had examined only a limited number of the images found on the offender’s devices.
Enquiries found that police had examined all the images on the seized devices.
Enquiries established that police used an automated computer process to analyse every image to identify any which had not previously seen by police, and would therefore require further investigation.
In addition, police officers viewed a limited number of images to determine the seriousness of the offences committed by the offender.
Officers explained that an agreement had been reached between the police and the Public Prosecution Service which set threshold points for sentencing. These were based on the number of images found in different categories of severity.
They said that when the threshold point for the maximum sentence had been reached, no further categorisation was necessary.
“As a result, I am satisfied that police did properly analyse all of the images discovered on this man’s devices,” said Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire.
“They undertook processes to identify images not previously seen by police, which would require further investigation. They also examined sufficient images to assist with sentencing.”
The Police Ombudsman also investigated concerns raised by the owner of the computer repair shop who originally brought the case to the attention of police.
Having supplied information to police, the man later suggested in a TV interview that police may have lost a list of up to 30 names which he had found on the computer – people he suspected of having been involved in distributing images.
He said a police officer had called him in September 2013 – six months after the incident had been reported – and asked if some of the data could be recovered again. He said the call led him to believe that it had been lost by police.
However, enquiries by Police Ombudsman investigators found no evidence of this. At the time the shop owner said he had received the call, the seized computers and drives were still awaiting examination.
The shop owner also clarified that although he had seen some names associated with some images, there had been no list, and the figure of 30 names was an estimate.
The PSNI has since implemented a Police Ombudsman recommendation that three police officers, including a supervisor, should be disciplined over the failure to examine all relevant evidence.
Dr Maguire also welcomed the fact that the PSNI has since implemented new procedures intended to prevent a recurrence of the failings in this case.