Belfast Telegraph

Five key issues waiting in new PSNI chief Byrne's in-tray

The five key issues waiting in top officer’s in-tray:

Address rising crime figures

Recorded crime in Northern Ireland has risen by almost 3%, latest figures show.

New offences involving social media and the inclusion of people who accidentally leave petrol stations without paying have contributed, but addressing these statistics will be a priority.

While confidence in policing is rising, any setback in figures released to the public would have an adverse impact.

More victims of domestic violence are coming forward to report offences but there has also been a proportionate increase in robbery.

Drugs operations in Belfast have contributed to the increase in the number of drugs offences detected.

Putting a positive spin on the figures, that the PSNI is being more successful in tackling these sorts of crimes, will be key to maintaining public confidence.

Manpower and budget

The falling number of police officers has been an issue for many years. The Patten Report recommended there should be 7,500 full-time officers. Latest figures show the number currently stands at 6,702, almost 800 shy of where the force should be for the PSNI to be effective.

Simon Byrne
Simon Byrne

Over the last year, 366 police officers and 124 police staff have left the organisation.

In February last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland said £386m had been cut from the police budget since 2004. Over the past five years alone the budget has been cut by £150m.

The PSNI's budget for 2019-20 provides for an £11m increase on the previous year, but falls well short of what is required to maintain existing service levels.

The new chief will also likely face calls for a return to 50/50 recruitment. Currently, 83% of the PSNI's senior officers are Protestants with only 1,720 of 5,033 constables identifying as Catholic.

Dealing with Brexit

It has been claimed that 500 officers would need to be recruited, and decommissioned police stations reopened, to protect the post-Brexit border on the island of Ireland.

Senior officers warned that the PSNI was not adequately staffed to enforce even a soft border after the UK exits the European Union.

There are also fears officers deployed to monitor the post-Brexit border would be "terrorist targets" for the anti-ceasefire, hardline, dissident republican factions.

The Federation has called for an immediate increase in the PSNI's budget to cope with the effect of Brexit.

The PSNI has been awarded £16.48m by the Northern Ireland Office to help prepare for Brexit, which should allow the recruitment of 308 officers and staff by April 2020 - still short of what is reasonably required.

Add to that issues over the future of EU arrest warrants, and the need to plan for all eventualities, and there's a European minefield still to be negotiated.

Police station closures

The number of police stations in Northern Ireland has been cut by over two-thirds over the last two decades.

Last year the PSNI confirmed it has halted the sale of three further border police stations as a "precautionary step" over Brexit.

Castlederg and Aughnacloy in Co Tyrone and Warrenpoint in County Down had been "previously identified for disposal".

As stations have closed, criticisms have followed over the level of engagement with local communities.

Add to that the reduction in the number of community officers to under 400 across the PSNI and maintaining an effective presence at a local level will need to be addressed.

Since 2012, neighbourhood police officer numbers have dropped from 1,332 to just 311 last year.

Rural communities have been hardest hit by the station closures, an issue that has been noted by the reaction to the spate of ATM thefts around Northern Ireland since the start of 2019.

Legacy issues

The retiring Chief Constable has repeatedly warned that the PSNI does not have the resources to deal with investigating the past, with much of the burden of legacy investigations being placed on the current PSNI manpower.

The current Legacy Investigation Branch, with its 70 officers and support staff, has a caseload of 1,134 incidents resulting in 1,425 deaths and an archive of 44 million individual pieces of evidence which is spread across a myriad of different computer systems.

Former RUC officers who could navigate the system are no longer with the force.

The cost of resourcing this work was projected to be £1.79m by the end of this financial year.

Already there has been an issue over 'non-disclosure' of documents relating to the Sean Graham Bookmakers atrocity, which drew intense criticism and resulted in the Chief Constable inviting the Police Ombudsman's office to have 'unfettered access' to carry out their own searches.

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