PSNI spend 400 hours in a week doing work of banned National Crime Agency
Police chief reveals manpower costs of crime agency row
A team of PSNI detectives spent 400 policing hours within just one week filling in for the National Crime Agency to disrupt a major African drugs gang.
The specialised officers had to be taken from other crime investigations to carry out the work of the agency, which is prohibited from operating in Northern Ireland due to political disagreement.
One of Northern Ireland's top police officers revealed that in recent weeks one of his teams of detectives helped prevent the international crime gang from smuggling class A drugs into the province.
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr warned, however, that the lack of National Crime Agency (NCA) powers in Northern Ireland was a "significant handicap" for the PSNI.
"That is just one example of the number of PSNI hours being spent on operations that the NCA could have conducted had they been operational here," he said.
"Of course, this relates to threats to communities in Northern Ireland, so we are not going to say no - but that was 400 hours of police activity that we were not dealing with other stuff," added Mr Kerr, who is head of the PSNI's Crime Operations Department.
Due to budget pressures, the PSNI is struggling to meet the necessary complement of 6,963 officers which the Chief Constable has said is required to remain effective and to respond "to the significant challenges presented by policing in a post-conflict society".
Now that the PSNI is having to undertake the work of the NCA - which has been blocked from operating here because of nationalist concerns over the accountability of the agency's officers - additional strain is being placed on manpower levels.
Police are also unable to touch millions of pounds worth of criminal assets belonging to gang bosses because of the political bickering.
"Criminals exist to make money - we love taking it off them again," said Mr Kerr. "We don't care if it is hard cash or assets. But under the Proceeds of Crime Act there is a gap in provisions at the moment because the NCA can't exercise those powers in Northern Ireland on reserved matters."
He added: "A very effective way of tackling organised crime gangs is seizing their assets and we would love to be able to disrupt them by the powers of confiscation and restraint, but that currently doesn't exist in Northern Ireland."
An estimated 140-160 organised crime gangs operate in Northern Ireland. Around 30% of these gangs have an international reach, which means they are either using Northern Ireland as a transit destination or a destination of choice for their criminal activities.
"We have disrupted a significant number of them in the last 12 months," added Mr Kerr.
"Our job is just made so much harder not having some of the basic tools in the box. We are never going to play politics with this, but there is a gap at the moment."
The NCA, described as the UK's FBI, was created to lead the fight to cut serious and organised crime, including economic crime, cyber crime and child sex abuse. It took over from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in October 2013. Soca provided operational support to the PSNI's most complex investigations.
The National Crime Agency has been billed as the UK's answer to the FBI, operating in all four constituent countries. But the taskforce was blocked from operating here after the SDLP and Sinn Fein failed to back a motion supporting it. Since last year the PSNI has been pouring resources into major organised crime investigations that everywhere else in the UK are handled by the NCA.
Inside the NCA
Key units within the UK's National Crime Agency, headed by Keith Bristow, include:
Proceeds of Crime Centre: Formerly the Assets Recovery Agency, this unit has the power to seize possessions and cash from those who amassed their fortunes through crime.
Missing Persons Bureau: A department that co-ordinates the search for missing persons nationally and internationally, cross-matching those missing with unidentified persons or bodies, and maintaining an index of dental records of missing persons and unidentified bodies.
UK Human Trafficking Centre: Investigates networks across Europe and the world which involve human exploitation and prostitution.
National Injuries Database: A unit that maintains details of over 4,000 suspicious deaths to assist investigators in determining similarites in methods and weapons used.
UK Financial Intelligence Unit: A department that investigates reports of suspicious activity regarding money laundering.
Serious Crime Analysis Section: Examines patterns and methods surrounding rapes, serious sexual assaults and motiveless or sexually-motivated murders in a bid to trace serial offenders.
National Cyber Crime Unit: A specialist team that incorporates the former Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre set up to identify and prosecute internet predators. The unit also tackles cases of internet fraud and other computer-based crime.
International Partnership: The NCA is the UK point of contact for Interpol, Europol and the Schengen Information System (Euro governments database), and also the point of contact for international inquiries from all UK police and law enforcement agencies.