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PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris: Crime is changing from theft towards violence and racism

Deborah McAleese talks to the PSNI's Deputy Chief Constable about the twin challenges of policing the past and the present amid financial restraints.

Q. The Stormont House Agreement (SHA) addresses the legacy of the Troubles with the creation of a number of new agencies, including a Historical Investigations Unit, to examine unsolved murders. What are the implications for policing the past if SHA isn't implemented?

A. There's a number of implications for us. I think the first one is the amount of resource we have available to deal with the past - £30m per annum has been set aside for the work of HIU (Historical Investigations Unit) and the other elements of the Stormont House Agreement. Those are funds that we would have to find straight out of our main grant.

Q. What would that mean in terms of day-to-day policing?

A. That would be an immediate draw on our ability to deliver against today's policing plan and our ability to keep people safe in the here and now.

We understand we have responsibility around all the cases that still remain with us that haven't been reviewed, but at the same time we would have to prioritise serious harm of the moment.

The resources that we would put to (legacy cases) would not be comparable to what the HIU would be.

Q. Do you have any contingency plans should there be a failure to implement the SHA?

A. The arrangement which we have at the moment, which is the Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) with 70 officers and staff, would be the contingency with which we continue.

The Legacy Support Unit (which has responsibility for disclosure in legacy inquests) would also continue.

In effect, as you expect further cuts, every part of the organisation is going to feel some pain around the resources they have. That resource is unlikely to grow.

Q. What level of future budget cuts is the PSNI is expecting?

A. At the moment we only have this year's spend round. But looking at political commentary coming from Westminster and from the election it is inevitable austerity in terms of public sector expenditure is going to happen.

Q. In terms of legacy, it is a ridiculous size of work. What is the likelihood of ever being able to fulfil the hopes of victims and families?

A. We have entered into these processes, not just as police but as a society, probably without a thought of what the endgame is going to be. This is literally decades of work that we have embarked upon in respect of coronial inquests. Then there is also the review work (inherited from the Historical Enquiries Team) that we have yet to complete. If this (review work) remains with us, that is at least a decade. And time is moving on. Some of these events now are 40 years old and that has an impact as well.

Q. Can the past be resolved by the police service?

A. There is not in effect a solution with the police service about our past. We can play our part, we want to play our part, we want to play both our moral and legal responsibilities, but there is now a wider societal and political issue about how we actually deal with the past.

Q. The PSNI has frequently been criticised for delays in producing material for legacy inquests.

A. A big problem is that there is no system of prioritisation. Requests from the coroner's office are coming on a random basis. If researchers were left alone they could get a case done in around three months. But there is currently no prioritisation. Researchers are having to come off cases and start on others.

They are having to chop and change. It is totally random. If you could get a system you could select say five cases a year and do those to the exclusion of the other 40-odd.

That way you have a chance to get it completed. From the very start to finish our work on one case will currently take easily 1.5 years. It is a huge administrative undertaking with a huge amount of risk.

Q. What is the likelihood of resolving all of these cases (53 inquests relating to 86 deaths) under the current system?

A. There is a very poor proxy for reconciliation.

If we have resources they should be focused on reconciliation, rather than resources that have to go into this.

Our documents run to millions of pages.

Going forward it is not possible in a lifetime to get through this. We are following through and we respect the coroner's process, but as a society I'm not sure how much further it will take us.

Q. You have 70 police officers dedicated to legacy cases. What else could they be doing?

A. Well they are all experienced detectives, experienced investigators and so we would direct them towards matters of serious harm. You are talking about serious sexual assault, serious crimes of violence, human trafficking, organised crime. That is the speciality from which they have been drawn to perform the function of legacy investigation.

Q. Crime has risen for the second year in a row. If you had not had to put so many resources into legacy investigation would there have been an increase in crime levels?

A. Our crime is changing from crimes of acquisition around theft and burglary and is moving, unfortunately, towards more crimes of violence. We are seeing more in terms of domestic violence, racist attacks and more in terms of serious sexual assault. Also our drug seizures are increasing. Increasingly we have a threat from organised crime. These are the very resources that you would direct towards elements of that. It does have an impact. You are talking about 70 people with skills and experience who could make a difference.

Q. What are your thoughts on having an agreement to prosecute in return for information?

A. That is a political decision. Our remit as a police force is around the prevention and detection of crime. It is not for the police service to put that forward as a suggestion. That is not our place.

Q. Do you intend to take more cases based on 'supergrass' evidence?

A. There's no such thing as supergrass. There are assisting offenders which are bound by legislation and directed by a senior member of the Public Prosecution Service(PPS). So there are legislative safeguards built into that process. It was written specifically for organised and serious crime as a tactic. And as a tactic that should be exploited to the public good around reducing the threat from serious harm and so it is an entirely appropriate tactic for the legislation and what it is directed towards. We wouldn't hesitate to use it where it was appropriate and with agreement with the PPS.

Q. Do you think there is any conflict with you as an ex-RUC officer involved in legacy cases?

A. No, I don't think there is any conflict. My responsibilities are set out very clearly around the prevention and detection of crime. I was in the RUC for 17 years and now have been in the PSNI for 14 years. Throughout that time I have served everyone in this society around protecting them and protecting them from serious harm.

The PSNI are subject to very stringent accountability. My actions in this office are entirely transparent.

People should take faith from that and from my record of bringing perpetrators of every hue and colour to justice.

Q. Are the objections against ex-RUC officers being involved fair?

A. The PSNI has been declared as a different legal entity from the RUC. I am charged as the Deputy Chief Constable as assistant in lead of this organisation and 5,000-odd of our officers are solely PSNI, they have never had any service in the RUC. Time keeps moving on and these comments are becoming less and less of an issue.

Q. How do you feel about investigating former colleagues?

A. We have no responsibility for that. That belongs entirely to the Ombudsman. We have responsibility around military cases but no responsibility around ex-police officers.

Q. A series of briefings, or legacy information seminars, have been held with former police officers about inquests into Troubles killings. Why were these meetings conducted?

A. The coroner asked for our assistance in outreach to former police officers who may be able to assist with the coronial process. Through the Retired Police Officers Association primarily, but not exclusively, we thought it would be useful to set out to people the role we had in our responsibilities to the coronial process. So it was very much about an information evening and an attempt to encourage officers who may have information to come forward and assist the coronial process. But the motivation didn't start with us. The motivation started with an attempt to assist the coroner around the inquests and an outreach to ex-officers.

Q. So it was the PSNI who asked for the meetings to be conducted?

A. Yes, we thought this would be one way of presentation and explanation and Q&A about the support officers would have and what would happen within the coronial process.

Q. Were officers prompted in what to say at inquest?

A. That couldn't be further from the truth. This was all in respect of just information evenings around what the coronial process would mean for them and what their obligations were and how we would assist in that.

Q. Can you see why this would raise concern within the public?

A. I can see why the allegations may have been made but they are not founded in any evidence of anything which might suggest stories being concocted or witnesses being coached. That didn't happen. There is no suggestion from preliminary hearings that there is evidence of that either.

Q. When Sinn Fein members talk about the dark side of policing, what do you understand them to mean?

A. There is no dark side. There is covert policing which is entirely proper for the police service to be involved in. Every police service in the world engages in intelligence-gathering. A police service without an intelligence capability will not be able to fulfil its functions around protecting society and preventing crime and bringing offenders to justice. You must be in a position to gather intelligence and that comes through a number of means. By its nature, the means by which we gather intelligence are confidential. But at the same time it is subject to very stringent oversight.

Q. You have almost 1,000 legacy cases that the HET had yet to look at or are to be reviewed. Was the HET a waste of money and resources?

A. Two-thirds of the cases in effect are dealt with, hopefully to the satisfaction of family members. They have been examined for evidential opportunities and where there have been evidential opportunities they have been passed over to Serious Crime Branch for investigation, so none of that was wasted.

I think unfortunately their work was stalled and in effect there was a year or so passed where there was no progress made and that is unfortunate because a lot of people were left waiting for reviews and indeed waiting for reviews to even commence and that is unfortunate in the middle of all this.

But in terms of their overall contribution, they did make a contribution, it is just not yet complete. It has to be completed which is a very significant task.

Q. One of the big legacy cases for the police is Bloody Sunday.

A. Bloody Sunday is a full murder investigation. It is not a review.

Q. Do you honestly think a soldier is ever going to see the inside of a courtroom?

A. It is a murder investigation. It is not an academic exercise for us. This is with the view to being able to present sufficient evidence to the PPS so they can direct the prosecution. We aren't engaging in some neutral way. This is an active investigation and this is our role, to detect crime.

Q. What resources are going into this investigation?

A. It is within the Legacy Investigation Branch so it is the equivalent to a major investigation team. At any one time there are about 20 personnel working on that case.

Q. Have you any idea how long the Bloody Sunday investigation is going to run for?

A. Right from the outset we said the investigation could take three to four years. In effect the Saville material is closed to us because of legislation under which the Saville Inquiry ran and we have to start completely afresh. But the Saville Inquiry itself provides us with a blueprint because there is so much information and that is a signpost through this investigation.

Q. What is your current assessment of the dissident threat?

A. We remain concerned. We saw last year a rise in paramilitary shootings and beatings and that is all about grip and control in their area. We are also concerned that there have been a number of pretty determined attacks to kill police officers as well.

We are not policing then in a normal environment. Together with other issues it does distort the policing service that we can provide here in Northern Ireland. We have to be very conscious of that in the way we send officers out on their duties so that does create concerns for us and we address that in terms of the way we train and equip and brief our officers.

It remains at severe and that's probably where it should be looking at all the information we have to hand at this moment in time.

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