125 PSNI officers injured by cramped cars
More than 125 PSNI officers have lodged formal complaints over neck and back injuries caused by "unsuitable" police cars, it has emerged.
Police officers suffered the injuries while patrolling in armoured Insignia cars since 98 of the Vauxhall vehicles were purchased by the PSNI in December 2012.
Many others - who have not submitted complaints - believe the vehicles are unfit for purpose because of difficulties getting in and out while wearing full body armour and a rig belt with a gun, magazine, baton, CS spray, handcuffs and first aid pouch.
Complaints centre around the interior space of the hatchbacks, as officers say it is seriously reduced by the ballistic protection fitted to the doors and windows of the cars.
A source told the Belfast Telegraph that accessing the seats requires "considerable physical effort", and that when another officer or a prisoner is in the back seat the space is so cramped that they cannot sit up straight.
A number of the officers have launched legal proceedings seeking compensation for the often prolonged effects of spinal, neck and other injuries sustained on duty in the vehicles.
The issue was first raised by DUP MP Jim Shannon in the House of Commons last year.
He said that the Insignias were "completely unsuitable" for policing and that average-sized officers cannot get out if the car is attacked.
There are also fears that officers could be trapped inside in an emergency, following claims from the PSNI source that it is "impossible" to escape through the rear hatch.
"This is because of the cramped interior and the bulk of the equipment," the source said.
A PSNI Freedom of Information disclosure revealed that, given the level of ballistic protection and the quantities required, the armoured Vauxhall Insignia was the only hatchback vehicle available at the time of purchase.
The Insignias are specially designed and manufactured for police use to a specification set out by national police contracts. However, the FoI response revealed that the PSNI did not test the car's suitability for its unique role in Northern Ireland by having people enter and exit and sit inside in the full protective equipment and rig belt they are required to wear at all times. PSNI health and welfare specialists have ordered many injured officers not to deploy in Insignias except in the case of an emergency.
Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey, who is a member of the Policing Board, said he had serious concerns over the vehicles.
"I would have thought by 2016 someone would have developed a system where the car can be armoured and also comfortable for the officers to use," he said. "I can understand an officer who has to wear full body armour, including a gun belt and other equipment, that it can be quite difficult to get in and out of a confined space.
"The safety of the officers while travelling is vital and if we are in the position where an officer can cause damage to their neck, back or spine because of the vehicle, I would have serious concerns."
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said all armoured vehicles in the PSNI fleet were designed to keep officers and staff safe, and to be "serviceable across a range of geographical areas".
"The work to ensure that this is and remains the case is continuous, and is overseen at the most senior levels within PSNI," he said.
"Where concerns are raised by officers, staff or those acting on their behalf, these are considered as part of this ongoing development process.
"To illustrate this, Insignia estate cars with additional rear compartment space are now the preferred purchase, and further makes and models are also being developed with manufacturers."