Justice must be done - and seen to be done - The Irish News view

PSNI’s refusal to release photographs of offenders serves neither its own needs nor wider confidence in the criminal justice system

The PSNI has appealed for information following an arson attack in Omagh, Co Tyrone
Unlike many other UK police forces, the PSNI does not normally release 'mugshots' of serious offenders at the conclusion of court cases (Niall Carson/PA)

Why does the PSNI not publish images of perpetrators at the conclusion of major court cases? What purpose does this policy serve, and why do so many other police forces take a very different view?

It should be a simple question, but it has proved surprisingly difficult to get a clear answer.

In Britain, it is considered normal practice for serious offenders to have their ‘mugshot’ released when all legal matters in a case have been dealt with.

In some other parts of the world, most notably the United States, police may not even wait for a court appearance before making a custody picture available – Donald Trump being the most high-profile recent example.

The PSNI’s official position is that requests are considered individually, in line with relevant legislation, as well as human rights and data protection requirements.

However, in practice, as a glance through the pages of any newspaper will demonstrate, the release of offenders’ images is very much the exception rather than the norm. Journalists instead rely on their own initiative to source photographs, with all the risk of misidentification inherent in such an exercise.

There are very good arguments for making official pictures available to media organisations, both from the point of view of police and wider issues of confidence in the justice system.

For the PSNI, or for that matter An Garda Síochána, it is no small feat to bring a complex case to a successful conclusion, given the very high standard of proof required for criminal convictions. Sharing photographs, video footage and other information can only increase public appreciation of this difficult work and, importantly, confidence that justice can be served on those who commit serious breaches of the law.

More generally, a presumption that perpetrators will be publicly identified could help deter crime, encourage further victims to come forward, as well as prevent confusion arising over the exact identity of criminals. It is not clear why the PSNI departs from other UK forces in this regard.

Of course conviction for a serious offence, even murder, does not strip all rights from a person and there will be circumstances where it is not appropriate to release a photograph, including to protect a victim’s identity. There is undoubtedly a balance to be struck between individual rights of that of the wider community, with many police forces only releasing images in cases above a certain custody threshold.

However, what is clear is that in operating an apparent blanket refusal, the PSNI has got this balance wrong. For its leadership team, and the Policing Board which oversees it, it is very much a case of justice not only being done but being seen to be done.