Losing invaluable policing experience is a real crime
Some 5,000 officers have left the PSNI since 2001. The recruitment of 40 replacements won't plug the gap, says Alan Murray
The most knowledgeable PSNI officer investigating the production and sale of counterfeit goods in Northern Ireland recently left the force. An expert in his chosen crime field, the word is that he will not be directly replaced.
For the last five years and more, scores of experienced PSNI detectives have availed of the opportunity to take their Patten packages and decamp to other pastures.
Many - like the counterfeit expert - have been snapped up immediately by industry giants here and beyond to apply their knowledge and investigative expertise to protect businesses.
Others have been hired to visit eastern Europe, in particular, to lecture and train police forces trying to cope with previously uncommon crime targeted at the giant markets that have just landed on their doorsteps .
The word from within the PSNI's economic crime bureau is that the remaining investigative officers are 'snowed under' with the ever-burgeoning crime load being generated by the influx of foreign crime-gangs, particularly those of Chinese origin, and our own paramilitary gangsters. Intelligence-gathering and intelligence-analysis, too, have suffered from depleted ranks, as hundreds of Special Branch officers voted with their feet and went to sunnier climates.
The story all over the PSNI is of younger promoted officers grappling with complex and challenging circumstances without the guiding hand of experience to give them the advice they need. Senior figures in the DPP's office have described many prosecution files sent to them from the PSNI as 'inadequate' and many have been returned. One file arrived at the DPP's office completely empty of content.
Such mistakes happen in every organisation, but when it happens in policing it does cause alarm and raises the question of what else has gone missing, or what isn't being done that should be done.
The announcement by Chief Constable Matt Baggott that he is seeking to recruit 40 "experienced" officers from other police forces to bolster his war on crime and terrorism has been greeted with disdain by the Police Federation. "A drop in the ocean" was how chairman Terry Spence greeted the announcement.
Not surprisingly, with some 5,000 experienced officers having left the force in the past 10 years, the news that 40 are to be recruited to compensate is far from reassuring.
Two former RUC officers have received commendations for their bravery during the recent New Zealand earthquake in Christchurch, though neither is likely to return to work on these shores.
The Chief Constable's operational plight is not of his own making. He didn't set in progress the departure of such experienced officers, or concede the overall intelligence-gathering task to the well-resourced, but less tactically astute MI5.
The PSNI's crime operations department has had successes against both loyalist and republican terrorists and, as experienced solicitors will attest, there are many senior detectives here more than capable and up for the task.
Their problem is that those they are tracking are more than able to cover their tracks, as the Northern Bank robbery proved. There isn't an immediate solution to the Chief Constable's problem, although the maxim 'prevention is better than cure' is as relevant in policing as it is in medicine.
Had so many intelligence-gatherers and analysts not been allowed to depart, the critical area of dissident terrorism and the considerable threat to life it poses would not be the huge problem it is today.
Matt Baggott inherited a problem caused by other public servants who were over-optimistic and who bowed to political pressures.
Regrettably, it is likely to be after the Chief Constable has left office before senior PSNI commanders can say they have all the experienced staff they need.