No blind eye on drug dealers: PSNI
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has challenged claims by Northern Ireland's health minister that his officers are giving low-level drug dealers a free run.
He rejected allegations from Edwin Poots that a blind eye is being turned to small-time pushers in exchange for information on the criminals masterminding sales on the streets.
The PSNI is under pressure to arrest and charge known dealers following eight suspected drug-related deaths in less than a month, seven in the greater Belfast area.
Police are still awaiting toxicology reports but its believed the victims died after taking contaminated ecstasy tablets. One was a young mother of two from Coleraine, Co Londonderry.
Dealers with links to loyalist paramilitary organisations have been blamed for supplying the drugs. Five of the deaths between the end of May and June 24 happened in the east Belfast constituency of First Minister Peter Robinson, who claimed the dealers were well known.
Mr Poots said he would not be surprised if police were turning a blind eye to low-level dealers in pursuit of the men in charge of supplies.
Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris hit back, saying he was stunned at allegations his officers were involved in unlawful and unethical behaviour, after which the minister and Mr Baggott had a telephone conversation.
Mr Poots told the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont this afternoon: "He is making it absolutely clear that they will go after anyone engaged in drug dealing and that there should be no 'untouchables'. That's what the community wants to hear, because whether we like it or whether we don't, there is a perception out there in our community that there are people who are untouchable; people known to be trading in drugs and who don't appear to be arrested."
Earlier Mr Harris said: "This myth of us protecting small-time drug dealers is just that - a myth."
Nearly 2,800 people were arrested last year for drugs offences with more than 4,400 seizures worth £10.2 million. Charges increased by 14%.