Northern Ireland news

Drop in use of police stop and search powers

PSNI officers at a checkpoint in Co Antrim during an operation aimed at disrupting dissident republican activity

POLICE complacency and lack of confidence in stop-and-search powers for munitions without reasonable suspicion have been blamed for a significant drop in their use, an independent reviewer said.

The number of searches stands at approximately a seventh of the total five years ago, according to security powers watchdog David Seymour, although dissident republican devices are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

He said: "There were a number of possible explanations but the PSNI has concluded that there were three main factors in play - officer confidence in the use of powers, complacency and concern that support might not be forthcoming if the exercise of the power resulted in a complaint being made."

Munitions have been used to deadly effect in Northern Ireland - Catholic PSNI constable Ronan Kerr was killed when a bomb exploded under his car in Omagh in 2011.

Mr Seymour said good work by the PSNI continued to save lives. Better training of officers is being introduced.

In 2014/15 use of the power to stop and search for munitions without reasonable suspicion fell by 14% following a drop of 34% the previous year.

Mr Seymour independently reviews the operation of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 which confers special powers. He said five years ago the number of such stops to search for weaponry was 29,391.

He said: "That (the current figure) is approximately one-seventh of the use five years ago.

"Some might say that the power was possibly over-used in the past. Nevertheless the PSNI are concerned, given the ongoing security situation, that the power was now being used too infrequently."

Officers have recovered mortar-type weapons from a graveyard in Co Tyrone and in May last year two partially-exploded bombs were discovered at an army reserve base in Derry.

Mr Seymour said: "The worrying new trends are the increasing sophistication of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the reckless selection of targets where there is a real risk of harm to the public, for example the use of a device disguised in the advertising hoarding of a betting shop in the Ardoyne and attacks on two hotels that were hosting PSNI events.

"Police officers, prison officers and the armed forces remain as prime targets though the methods used are indiscriminate and civilian lives are also put at risk by such tactics."

PSNI operational support department assistant chief constable Alan Todd said it is essential that police are effective in keeping people safe, and accountable for how they do that.

He said: "This is particularly important where we exercise police powers in respect of our fellow citizens.

"The quoted aspect of the report shows that we constantly scrutinise and seek to understand the use of such powers to ensure that use is necessary, proportionate and thoughtful, and address relevant issues as they may arise."

Some people complained of being stopped and searched by police in Northern Ireland up to two or three times a day, Mr Seymour said.

Police said only 0.03% of the population was stopped more than once.

Mr Seymour said concerns were largely confined to Derry and Strabane in the west and north Belfast.

"The concern was that the powers under the Justice and Security Act were being abused, no redress was available, and the local community was being punished."

He added in general terms the allegations related to individuals being stopped and searched many times a year, sometimes two or three times a day.

Children aged under 16 were reportedly being stopped and searched, people were being stopped and searched near schools in front of children, people were being stopped and searched because of their association with dissident republicans, and people were being stopped and searched when going about their daily business, he said.

He noted claims that inappropriate remarks were made by the police during a stop and search; some houses had been repeatedly searched over a period of time; seized property, including computers and laptops, was not being returned promptly; and munitions were never found following a stop and search.

Mr Seymour said the PSNI understood the use of these powers had the potential to alienate communities and therefore make their job more difficult, and outlined the service's response.

He added: "However, they have a legal obligation to keep people safe and they focus the use of these powers, based on intelligence, on known dissident republicans who are constantly planning attacks involving the use of munitions.

"PSNI officers are trained to conduct searches in accordance with the law and the code of practice.

"It can take up to a year to analyse the contents of computers and laptops seized in the course of a search. There was no harassment of communities.

"The powers are used carefully and target those individuals who are known to be capable of causing death and injury through the use of munitions."

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