Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Police officer faced punishment for 'eating an ice cream as he drove'

A PSNI colleague stopped for a break in Bushmills along the north coast in May and decided to treat themselves to an ice cream from a local shop
A PSNI colleague stopped for a break in Bushmills along the north coast in May and decided to treat themselves to an ice cream from a local shop

The Police Ombudsman asked prosecutors to consider taking a criminal case against a PSNI officer for allegedly eating an ice cream at the wheel of his police car, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

A probe was launched by Ombudsman investigators after a member of the public complained that the officer had stopped to buy the ice cream and then drove off while eating it.

The officer and a PSNI colleague stopped for a break in Bushmills along the north coast in May and decided to treat themselves to an ice cream from a local shop.

They then took the ice creams to their police car and the driver of the vehicle is alleged to have driven off with it still in hand.

The officer was investigated by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI) for not being in proper control of a vehicle. Investigators then forwarded a file to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) for consideration.

A spokesman for PONI said: "We have received a complaint about the manner in which a police car was being driven in Bushmills in May this year. Our enquiries have been completed and in line with normal procedure, a file has been submitted to the PPS for their consideration."

The Belfast Telegraph has learnt, however, that the PPS has decided not to pursue court proceedings against the officer,

It is understood the PPS wrote to PONI and the PSNI to say the case was a "waste of time".

Policing Board member Jonathan Craig described the PONI probe against the officer as "ridiculous" and "madness".

He said that resources would have been better spent pursuing "serious" cases.

"What is the Police Ombudsman investigating something like this for? Surely they have a lot more pressing matters to be dealing with than putting all those resources into chasing a police officer who might have been eating an ice cream while on duty," the DUP MLA said.

Mr Craig added: "This was a complete waste of time, money and resources. Complaints are made against police officers on a daily basis and some are mischievous in their nature. These type of complaints need to be filtered out."

However, SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said that while she sympathised with the officer, if he broke the law then it was correct and proper for PONI to investigate.

"Strictly speaking, what this officer is alleged to have done was not within the law and therefore it is the job of the Police Ombudsman to investigate that. I know it is something that we have all done, but there is a very clear road safety message that motorists must fully concentrate on the road. Police officers need to make sure they keep within the law at all times," Ms Kelly said.

The case has reopened a debate over whether the PSNI should have authority to deal with more minor complaints against officers internally at a local level.

Policing Board members have raised concern over the number of complaints clogging up PONI's workload and the resources that are needed to deal with them.

Last year PONI dealt with more than 6,000 allegations against police officers. Almost 50 of those allegations related to driving or other traffic irregularities.

"Maybe it is time to have a mature debate around the matters that the Police Ombudsman should rightly investigate and whether flexibility could be introduced so that some complaints, such as this one, could be dealt with internally by the PSNI," said Ms Kelly.

Mr Craig said: "The PSNI need to be dealing with complaints like this one themselves and in an appropriate manner."

The PSNI was unable to comment on the case or say if any disciplinary action was taken against the officer.

Five other cases that raised eyebrows

1. Hundreds of thousands of pounds in taxpayers' money was spent taking a senior detective to court accused of stealing £40 from a work tea kitty. Detective Inspector Bryan Logan was suspended for three-and-a-half years until he was cleared, following a Crown Court trial, of stealing the money over a five-week period from a kitty that was kept in a fridge in Antrim CID office.

2. Last summer police in Portstewart arrested a 22 year-old man for soaking people with a water pistol. The man was in a car travelling along the town's busy Promenade when police saw one of those inside shooting water over pedestrians and other road users. Officers stopped the car and arrested the prankster.

3. A man was arrested in Derry after he gave his name and address in Irish when he was stopped by police coming out of a house in the Creggan area. Dermot Douglas, of Mellows Park in Dublin, was charged under anti-terrorism legislation with not giving his details to the best of his ability. When brought to court the judge said: "One wonders what would have happened if Mr Douglas had been Romanian or Chinese."

4. A first time offender and mum-of-three was jailed for three months for stealing a pair of £10 jeans. Her sentence was reduced on appeal to 100 hours of community service. Strabane woman Alison Hewitt's case – which included a police investigation, a four-day Crown Court trial and a High Court appeal before senior judges – amounted to tens of thousands of pounds.

5. A failed court case against a man who forgot to pay for a handful of groceries, which included two sausage rolls, left the taxpayer with a bill of more than £20,000. Alastair Hetherington, who forgot to pay for his items when he stepped outside the store momentarily to get a signal on his mobile phone, was put on trial for shoplifting. It took the jury 60 minutes to acquit him. The decision to prosecute cost the public purse £21,155 – that is 368 times the cost of the £57.55 bill he forgot to pay.

Should this case ever have been investigated?

No, says DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig.

This is a completely ridiculous case. What is the Police Ombudsman investigating something like this for?

Surely they have a lot more pressing matters to be dealing with than putting all that those resources into chasing a police officer who might have been eating an ice cream while on duty.

This was a complete waste of time, money and resources. Complaints are made against police officers on a daily basis and some are mischievous in their nature. These type of complaints need to be filtered out.

This matter could easily have been dealt with internally at local level rather than involving the Police Ombudsman and then the Public Prosecution Service.

If a member of the public had been stopped by a police officer for enjoying an ice cream behind the wheel they would probably have been given a bit of a ticking off or a discretionary disposal.

There is growing statistical evidence that the PSNI are just automatically handing over all complaints to the Ombudsman's Office and using it as a safety valve for themselves.

The Police Ombudsman Northern Ireland is an incredibly expensive organisation to run and when it comes to cases like this one it is a huge waste of public resources.

The PSNI really needs to get to grips with that reality. They need to be dealing with complaints like this one themselves and in an appropriate manner. I think it is complete madness that Police Ombudsman resources were used in a case like this.

Yes, says SDLP member of Policing Board Dolores Kelly.

I remember there was a case where a motorist was prosecuted for eating a Kit-Kat at the wheel.

I know it is something that we have all done, but there is a very clear road safety message: that motorists must fully concentrate on the road.

The person who lodged this complaint may have been genuinely concerned that the officer would not be able to control the vehicle properly had he in fact been eating at the wheel.

Members of the public have in the past been fined or prosecuted for eating at the wheel. Lack of concentration is how accidents happen and if you are eating at the wheel then you cannot be fully concentrating on the road.

On a human level it is very understandable. However, it underscores how important it is for police officers to be extra vigilant about the actions they take.

They need to make sure they keep within the law at all times. Strictly speaking what this officer is alleged to have done was not within the law and therefore it is the job of the Police Ombudsman to investigate that.

Maybe it is time to have a mature debate around the matters that the Police Ombudsman should rightly investigate and whether flexibility could be introduced so that some complaints, such as this one, could be dealt with internally by the PSNI.

I do believe we need further reflection on this, given the nature of some of the complaints that are being brought to the Ombudsman and the pressure that is currently having on the Ombudsman's Office.

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