NCA deal urged to fight sex gangs
Cracks are emerging in the Police Service of Northern Ireland's ability to tackle sex trafficking because of a failure to sign up to a UK-wide policing agency, a senior officer warned.
Sophisticated international crime gangs have begun work in the region but police sometimes cannot seize their cash and lack the "surge" capacity to enlist detectives from other forces during major operations, PSNI assistant chief constable Drew Harris said.
He expressed hope that disagreements over how the National Crime Agency (NCA) is made accountable in Northern Ireland would be resolved soon.
"Now, five months into the NCA, we can start to really see where cracks are opening up and we are really very hopeful that we can get accountability issues resolved because we are missing out on the operational assistance that the NCA can bring."
The number of human trafficking cases in Northern Ireland has more than doubled.
A total of 41 potential victims were identified last year, 2% of all UK cases, the NCA said.
People are used for sexual exploitation, forced labour and domestic servitude.
The NCA, known as the British FBI, targets crime gangs across local, national and international borders.
Its head is directly accountable to Home Secretary Theresa May for the agency's actions, not to the chief constable of the PSNI Matt Baggott, the Policing Board of politicians and independent representatives or Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire who independently investigates complaints of police misconduct.
Nationalist politicians from Sinn Fein and the SDLP blocked a move to give the NCA powers to carry out police operations and recruit agents amid oversight concerns.
Police in Northern Ireland are among the most heavily scrutinised in the world after decades of republican mistrust during the 30-year conflict.
Mr Harris told MLAs at Stormont's justice committee that the amount of human trafficking in Northern Ireland was broadly comparable to the rest of the UK.
He warned: "Organised crime gangs are very adept at finding weaknesses in law enforcement."
He said levels of cooperation with Irish police to prevent any use of the border by criminals to spirit women north and south was good and added the accountability issue surrounding the NCA could be resolved.
He stated that the practical impact has been felt in the inability to seize gangs' cash in some instances.
"Crime group activity is all about the cash, that is an underbelly for us, a weakness."
He said the NCA had lent officers to other forces to allow them to temporarily increase the number of detectives engaged on an operation.
"That has been a great challenge, we cannot avail of that at the moment."
Democratic Unionist Stormont Assembly member William Humphrey said the force had been left vulnerable.
"These are sophisticated criminals who are exploiting young ladies in particular in the most evil way," he said.
Roy McComb, a PSNI detective chief superintendent leading the fight against trafficking, said many women rescued did not even know what country or city they were in.
The Assembly is considering legislative change to criminalise those who pay for sex.
Mr McComb said the evidential opportunities were limited and any arrests were likely to be part of wider investigation into organised crime.
Mr Harris said those who organised the trafficking were key targets.
People are being placed in this awful position, it is incumbent on society to respond to this," he added.
"We recognise it as the insidious crime that it is and the very serious crime that it is and feel that we have responded appropriately."