What is the Police Ombudsman’s Office?
An Ombudsman is an official who is appointed to investigate complaints by citizens or consumers. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland investigates complaints from citizens living here about the conduct of police officers. He also investigates serious matters referred to him by the police, the courts and other official bodies if they feel it is in the public interest that a concern about the conduct of police officers should be the subject of an independent investigation
The law which established the Police Ombudsman’s Office said it must carry out its duties in such a way as to win the confidence of the public and the police. That means its handling of complaints and its investigations must be independent of any improper influence from the police, from the Government and from any sectional community interest.
The Police Ombudsman is Dr Michael Maguire. His Office is based in St. Anne’s Square in Belfast City Centre. It has more than 150 members of staff, made up of experienced complaint handlers, and investigators and others who support them. Neither Dr Maguire nor any of his staff are employees of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Dr. Maguire was appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. His Office is funded by the Northern Ireland Executive’s Department of Justice and is accountable to the Northern Ireland Executive for the proper use of its funds.
The law gives the Police Ombudsman’s investigators the same type of powers as police officers: during the course of an investigating they can carry out searches, seize equipment and if necessary arrest police officers, for example. At the end of their investigation they can recommend that police officers should be prosecuted or disciplined.
The Office deals with complaints about the conduct of police officers during incidents which are said to have happened during the previous 12 months. It will also consider matters which are said to have happened longer ago than 12 months if the Police Ombudsman thinks the allegations are ‘grave’ or ‘exceptional.’ The Office also has also special unit set up to deal with concerns about police conduct between 1968 and 1998 in Northern Ireland – the period known as The Troubles
Why was the Office set up?
The Police Ombudsman’s Office was set up to provide an independent and impartial method of investigating complaints about the conduct of police officers in Northern Ireland.
Prior to November 2000, complaints against the police here were dealt with by a body called the Independent Commission for Police Complaints. Under that system, police officers themselves investigated complaints against the police under the supervision of a Commission. As part of the on-going political unrest at the time, concerns were raised that these investigations were not all been handled in a truly independent way.
In November 1995 the Government then asked a senior civil servant, Dr Maurice Hayes, to carry out a review of the system. Dr Hayes consulted across the community. He reported that the overwhelming message he received was people they wanted a system for investigating complaints against the police which would not only be independent but be able to demonstrate that it was independent.
He recommended that an independent Police Ombudsman should be established and should be supported by a team of experienced investigators and other staff, none of whom should belong to the service they were investigating. The Office would investigate all complaints against the police and its investigators would have the same powers as police officers.
When was the Office set up?
The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 established the Police Ombudsman’s Office. The Act, published in July of that year, followed the Belfast (or ‘Good Friday’) Agreement which was signed in April 2008.
After a period of preparation work, the Office opened its doors to the public on November 6th 2000.
How does the Office promote inclusion, justice and democracy in Northern Ireland?
For a democracy to work properly its citizens must keep the law and be confident that it is being applied fairly to everybody. Citizens must have confidence that their police service is fair and cannot act above the very law it is enforcing. They must also have confidence that the police are up to the job.
The Police Ombudsman’s Office is the main body which is tasked to deliver on these demands. It investigates complaints against the conduct of police officers and reports the findings of those investigations back to the person who made the complaint and to the police officer who was complained of, explaining not only their findings but also how they arrived at them. In significant cases it also makes these reports public.
The Office provides a place to go for a person who believes they have been treated unfairly by a police officer. Society gives a police officer many powers, including the right to use force and to arrest people and it is important that police do not abuse those powers and that they are held to account for how they use them.
The work of the Office also allows police officers to see that false and malicious complaints will be dealt with: the main job of a police officer is to protect life and preserve property. It can be a difficult and dangerous job and police officers have a right to know that if they behave properly they need not fear being complained about.
The work of the Office helps citizens know that if things go wrong in policing, there is a system to help put them right. Not only does the Police Ombudsman acknowledge if a police officer has behaved improperly, he will also point out areas where police policy or procedures could be improved to prevent similar things happening again.
If citizens and police officers alike know that how an officer uses his or her powers can be subject of an independent investigation, it will improve everyone’s confidence that justice must be done and injustice will be exposed.
How do you make a complaint?
Members of the public can complain about the police in a number of ways. They can phone, email and write to us, or they can use an online complaints form on our website.
Alternatively, they can come into the Office in Belfast, or ask a solicitor or other representative to complain on their behalf.
There is no charge for making a complaint.
What happens after you make a complaint?
Once a complaint has been received it will be assessed by the Complaints Team. They will take further details from the complainant if necessary and decide if it meets certain criteria (eg. is within 12 months of the incident). If it is accepted it then will be passed to one of the Investigation Teams.
An Investigating Officer will be assigned to the case and it is their job to gather evidence to show whether police officers have done their jobs properly, or whether they have broken the law or breached the police Code of Ethics.
Evidence gathering includes things like speaking to the complainant, identifying the police officer concerned and speaking to them, and trying to locate any witnesses to the incident.
The investigator also tries to gather other evidence such as mobile phone or CCTV footage to help them understand what happened.
Once the investigation has been completed a report is written. In a misconduct case (for example where the police officer is alleged to have not investigated a crime properly) the report will be sent to the PSNI. If the officer has been found to have done nothing wrong, or if there isn’t enough evidence to decide against them, the Office will recommend no action should be taken against the officer.
If they are found to have behaved inappropriately then the Office will recommend to the police that some form of disciplinary action should be taken against the officer.
In more serious criminal cases, for example if the officer is alleged to have broken the law by assaulting someone, then the report goes to the Public Prosecution Service. It will then be up to them to decide if they want to take the case to a trial by jury.
How successful has the Police Ombudsman’s Office been?
In many ways this question is one which is best left to others to judge, but it would be fair to say that the idea of complaints being investigated independently of the police has proven to be a very successful one.
A good indicator of how successful the Office has been is to compare it to other police complaints systems internationally. As well as being described as the ‘gold standard’ for police complaints models, a recent academic study also concluded that the Police Ombudsman’s Office is probably the only truly independent complaints and investigation system in the world. Groups from over 30 different countries, including Latvia, Macedonia, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea and Georgia are among those who have visited in recent times Delegates have said they are keen to learn more about how independent investigation works in practice.
In Northern Ireland, all the main political parties support the idea of an independent police complaints system and support the Police ombudsman’s Office. Some politicians and observers have commented that knowing that there is a good police complaints system which they can trust has helped some groups within the community to support the police.
Opinion of the work of the Office has broadly remained high over the years. However, in the past some of aspects of the Office have been criticised. Nevertheless, an independent organisation like the Office cannot let the possible reactions of others influence its investigations, meaning the Office will continue to be the subject of much comment and debate going into the future.
Does the Office have the support of the people in Northern Ireland?
The Police Ombudsman is required by law to provide a police complaints service which has the confidence of the public and is capable of winning the confidence of the police
In a recent independent survey, 86% of respondents who knew about the Police Ombudsman’s Office thought they would be traded fairly if they made a complaint against the police and 83 % said they felt the Office would help ensure the police do a good job. In the same survey 77% of Catholics were either fairly or very confident the Office dealt with complaints in an impartial way. 76% of Protestants felt the same way.
Police Officers who have been investigated by the Office have also been surveyed. 72% of those who responded felt satisfied by the service.
The Office is of the view that while such community confidence is welcome, providing an independent investigation service will means that sooner or later, there will be those who dislike our findings. That is the price of being independent.
How could the Office develop in the future?
There are a number of ways the Office could develop in the future. At the moment the Government is looking again at its powers and has plans to increase them. There are discussions about the Police Ombudsman extending his role to investigate some other sections of the Criminal Justice System.
There is also a discussion at the moment which suggests that in the future the Police Ombudsman might no longer deal with very minor complaints against police officers and that the police deal with these. Those that support this view argue the public would prefer the police to deal with the matter there and then, or very quickly thereafter, rather than having to wait while a more formal process takes place.
There is also the issue of Northern Ireland’s Past. If the politicians find a different way of dealing with the various issues, it may mean that the Police Ombudsman’s Office would not have to look at its cases from The Troubles and could concentrate all its efforts in holding modern policing to account.
What type of complaints does the Ombudsman’s Office generally receive?
There are many different types of complaints, but the three main categories are:
Failure in duty – allegations that police failed to perform the duties required of them, or breached the police Code of Ethics. This accounts for about 35% of all allegations.
Oppressive behaviour – allegations of assault, intimidation or harassment by police officers. This also accounts for about 35% of all allegations.
Incivility – allegations of rudeness. This accounts for about 10% of allegations.
What is the nature of the relationship between the Office and the PSNI?
The police support the concept of independent investigation of complaints against the police. They have said have that they do not want bad police officers among their ranks: such people would damage citizen’s confidence in policing. Police officers however must be confident that these complaints will be dealt with fairly. Senior managers in both organisations work together to ensure that they have the correct policies and procedures in place to make this happen. They do not, however, discuss any matters which are subject to investigation.