Discrimination concerns are justified, but not on grounds of race or ethnicity

Published Date: 22.12.2020

The Police Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, has said that claims the police handling of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests and a counter demonstration earlier this year amounted to unfairness and discrimination are justified.

PDF: An investigation into police policy and practice in relation to protests in Northern Ireland

Although she believed this was not intentional and not based on race or ethnicity, she said confidence in policing among some within the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in Northern Ireland had been severely damaged.

She said the situation had come about due to a failure by police to fully understand their human rights obligations.  

Mrs Anderson has made a number of recommendations which include that in future police consider adopting a human rights-based approach to the policing of protests, which would involve balancing competing rights and risks.

These are among the points made in a 90-page report issued by the Police Ombudsman’s Office following an investigation of policies and practices behind the policing of a number of large public protests in May and June.

The Police Ombudsman report considers the wider context of the public health emergency and the related public health Regulations:

“The task of enforcing those Regulations has fallen largely to the PSNI, unfairly in my view, as those Regulations make reference to the role of other ‘designated’ officials such as public health officials and local authority officials,” noted Mrs Anderson.

The Police Ombudsman investigation looked at the policies in place and how they were
implemented in the policing of five ‘Black Lives Matter’ and one ‘Protect our Monuments’ protests held between May 29 – 13 June following the death of Mr George Floyd, a black man who died while being restrained by police officers in the United States.

The protests were held at a time when the public health Regulations placed restrictions on such gatherings.

Mrs Anderson said she decided to investigate the matter after a number of people who had been at ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry on 6 June contacted her, alleging police had not been consistent in how they applied the Regulations at the two events.

 “Given the particular nature of what the protests were about, I felt it was in the public interest that these issues be addressed. It was important that I look at the relevant police policies and seek to establish if they had been applied consistently,” she said.

Mrs Anderson extended her investigation to include the ‘Protect our Monuments’ protest held in Belfast on June 13, after which she received allegations that police had enforced the public health Regulations in a discriminatory fashion.

The investigation established that enforcement action, by way of issuing Fixed Penalty Notices and follow up investigations, was taken against Black Lives Matter protesters and organisers on 6 June, but no such enforcement or follow up action took place in respect of demonstrators on 13 June.

The Police Ombudsman report quotes from police records which sets out their planning for an anticipated ‘Black Lives Matters’ protest and a ‘Protect Our Monuments’ counter demonstration in Belfast on 13th June

Those records show police noting that the city was expected to be busier than the previous weekend as Northern Ireland had just come out of ‘lockdown’ and that this time there would be counter demonstrations.

They show that police were mindful of the criticism of their handling of the previous weekend’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests. Police also noted that issuing Fixed Penalty Notices had not led to crowd dispersal and were further concerned that if they were to issue Notices again this would mean deploying more police officers, which could lead to increased tensions.

Police records show that this time they prioritised persuading the organisers to keep within the Covid Regulations, rather than issuing Notices for breaching those Regulations. The Police Ombudsman report quotes from the planning notes made on the morning of 13th June by the senior police officer in charge, in which she said:

 “Our style will be friendly and respectful…..I am very mindful of the policing approach to last weekend’s event and the fact that if (Notices) are not issued to the crowd at the City Hall the organisers and participants of last weekend’s anti-racism event may feel they have been treated unfairly. I cannot allow this to be a determining factor for why I would move to issue (Notices) today.”  

The anticipated Black Lives Matter protest did not materialise, while the ‘Protect our Monuments’ demonstration went ahead.  

The Police Ombudsman has said there were a number of differences in how police handled events on 6 June and 13 June.

These included that police had encouraged demonstrators to gather in a COVID-19 compliant manner for the ‘Protect our Monuments’ demonstration but had attempted to persuade organisers of the previous ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests to cancel their events.

Mrs Anderson noted that police issued enforcement notices for breaches of the public health Regulations at the’ Black Lives Matter’ protests but did not do so at the ‘Protect our Monuments’ demonstration.  

“I think it is important to say at the outset that police officers at all three events were respectful, professional and courteous and had not engaged in harassment, as some people had claimed

However, in undertaking planning for 6th June, police failed to have sufficient regard to a number of issues including the international and domestic context of ‘Black Lives Matter’; a public response to the police use of force against George Floyd and other members of the black community in the USA, and wider concerns of racial inequality.

I also believe the use of the Serious Crime Act 2007 to caution organisers of this event was not appropriate.”

The Police Ombudsman report found no evidence that police had any involvement in the changes to public health Regulations made prior to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests on June 6.

It also disclosed that as a result of matters uncovered during this investigation, the Office has begun a separate investigation into the conduct of a number of police officers relating to matters connected to the ‘Protect our Monument’ protest at Belfast City Hall on 13 June.

The Police Ombudsman has also made four recommendations for changes to the police policies in the future. These include that they consider adopting a human rights-based approach to the policing of protests, which would involve balancing competing rights and risks, that they review the enforcement of the Fixed Penalty Notices which had been issued and where appropriate consider redress for the individuals affected, and that the PSNI Chief Constable periodically reports to the Policing Board on police engagement with the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in Northern Ireland.

The Police Ombudsman also endorsed the Policing Board’s call for a review of the decisions in relation to Fixed Penalty decisions and about applicability of the section 44 Offence under Serious Crime Act 2007.

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