Public at risk from offenders due to lack of police officers, says watchdog
Too few police are being dedicated to protecting the public from offenders, presenting "an immediate risk which must be addressed", a watchdog has said.
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland Brendan McGuigan said the increasing numbers of Category 1 offenders - those who pose a lower level of risk to the public and whose management falls primarily to the PSNI alone - rose by around 30% from 1,000 in 2011 to about 1,400 in October 2018.
The sixth assessment of public protection arrangements said "it was especially challenging for the police to maintain an appropriate level of staffing".
"Inspectors were concerned that in the face of a lack of available officers, a need for more technological training and the prospect of the ongoing and increasing demand for the police to deal with significant numbers of Category 1 offenders, the current policing resource model was unsustainable and presented an immediate risk which must be addressed," said Mr McGuigan.
He recommended that the PSNI should "develop an action plan to sustain the resourcing of its Public Protection Units and a system to cope with the demands of Category 1 offenders" within the next six months.
He also queried why only the PSNI had access to a database of violent and sex offenders, but not other agencies involved in monitoring them.
"Inspectors identified that the police, probation and prison services in England and Wales had access to the Violent and Sex Offender Register (ViSOR) database to enable them to manage public protection cases, yet in Northern Ireland, the ViSOR database was only used by the PSNI," he said.
"As there was no obvious reason for the other agencies not accessing either this register or a similar type of database, we have recommended that all PPANI (Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland) agencies should have access to this type of system." He also noted how the increasing workload on public protection police and prison officers was leading to pressure and higher sickness levels.
"Inspectors identified that while police officers engaged in this area of work were well motivated, at the time of inspection fieldwork, sickness and other absence levels along with staff turnover and the need to manage increasing numbers of cases, were causing considerable pressure," he said.
"Similarly, prison service staff were frequently extracted from PPANI duties to undertake other responsibilities within the prison environment," added Mr McGuigan.
The chair of the PPANI Strategic Management Board, Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman, welcomed what she described as a "positive inspection report".
"The management of sexual and violent offenders is a priority for us all and this report demonstrates the effectiveness of partners working collaboratively to address any risks posed," she said.
"The small number of recommendations resulting from the inspection, which took place in 2017, have already been addressed - some are fully actioned and others are already in progress.
"We will continue to work together and strive to be an example of best practice."