Refusal to release mugshots against guidelines PSNI told

THE Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has urged the PSNI to release pictures of convicted criminals amid concerns that forces are operating against guidelines by refusing to publish mugshots.

Police forces across Britain, including the PSNI, have been told to be more forthcoming with the release of images of convicted criminals to the media.

Concerns have been raised that many forces are refusing to publish pictures of offenders unless they have been jailed - in defiance of guidelines in Britain and Northern Ireland.

Some forces also insist on sentences of more than three years before releasing custody photos to the press, citing data protection human rights concerns.

The PSNI has been criticised on numerous occasions in past years for failing to release photographs.

In one case last year, the PSNI refused to release an image of a man convicted for breaking into a house and sexually assaulting a nine-year-old north Belfast girl while she slept.

And earlier this year, the force said it would not release images of two men involved in a major crime gang caught importing £1.2 million of drugs to the north.

The PSNI said it used "extensive checks and balances" to ensure releasing images of criminals was appropriate.

SDLP Policing Board member Conall McDevitt said the PSNI was at risk of undermining public confidence if it failed to release images of criminals in legitimate cases.

"The police have not always got this right and there have been occasions recently when the police should have released images and they have not," he said.

"They need to be very careful not to undermine public confidence.

"They're not getting it right all of the time and I think it is important when they don't get it right, they learn from their mistakes."

Last month the Acpo wrote to all police forces in Britain and Northern Ireland reiterating guidance on the release of police photos.

The guidelines developed by Acpo in 2009 encourage officers to release custody images to the media.

Forces are told to bear in mind the nature of the crime and the impact of releasing an image on the perpetrator and their family. However, there is no reference to sentencing thresholds.

The Acpo move followed a Sunday newspaper survey of police forces in England and Wales last month.

It found that more than half required an offender to be given an immediate custodial term at the very least before their image was released.

Some forces said they would only publish mugshots of those given terms of at least three years.

Chief Constable Andy Trotter, national policing lead on the Acpo communications advisory group, told The Irish News a consistent approach was needed across all police forces.

"Forces should not arbitrarily refuse to release information as the position should be one of openness and assisting the media where appropriate," he said.

"The public has to have confidence in what we do and it is important that police are forthcoming in supplying information.

"I would encourage the release of images to the media where appropriate and at the earliest opportunity."

South Belfast assembly member Conall McDevitt said the PSNI needed to be aware of individuals' human rights and the risk of "punishment attacks" being carried out.

"You need to consider whether by releasing the images of someone, whether they will invite 'street justice' to happen. We do need to be sensitive to the local circumstances here," he said.

A PSNI spokesman said senior police officers made the final decision on the release of photographs and that the force did not use sentencing thresholds.

"The PSNI's decision to release images of convicted criminals to the media takes place only after extensive checks and balances have taken place to ensure that all images we release are appropriate and the final decision to release a photograph of an individual lies with a senior police officer," he said.

"At all stages of the process the PSNI consult current Acpo guidelines. Additionally we seek and fully take on board our obligations under Articles 2 and 3 ECHR to protect all persons from threats to life and inhuman treatment."