The Police Ombudsman has found no evidence that police gave information about people connected to a Republican band to a man understood to be a Loyalist in Ballymoney in 2016.
Dr Michael Maguire launched an investigation after a restricted email containing the names and addresses of six people connected to the band, as well as the names of a number of police officers, was found lying on a street in the town on 26 March 2016.
The email had been in the possession of police officers who visited the home of a Loyalist on official business the previous day. It was handed in to police after being found by a police officer who lived nearby, wedged under a wheel of his car.
The PSNI carried out a risk assessment, informed the people involved, and referred the incident to the Police Ombudsman’s Office for independent investigation. The Office also received four public complaints about the incident.
Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire said: “The circumstances of the loss of this information gave rise to understandable concerns among those named and in the community, and impacted on public confidence in the police.
“It is unclear exactly how the document came to be missing, but my investigation found no evidence that it was as a result of a deliberate act by police.
“What is clear, however, is that the officer responsible failed to take proper care of sensitive personal information.”
The Police Ombudsman’s investigation found that the document – a hard copy email – was printed by a police officer who was due to deliver a determination on a Republican band parade planned for Rasharkin on 27 March 2016.
The officer and two colleagues travelled to Rasharkin, where the determination was delivered to one of the people listed in the email.
They then travelled to Ballymoney where they visited the home of a man understood to be a Loyalist on unrelated official business.
The officer who had the email was sitting in the rear of the police car and was one of two officers who got out of the vehicle to call at the house.
When interviewed, he said the document had definitely been in the rear of the police car when they left Rasharkin. He said he had not taken it out of the car when they went to visit the man in Ballymoney, and could not account for how it went missing from the vehicle.
He said he only became aware of the document’s loss after its recovery the following day.
Neither he, any of his colleagues nor the man whose house they had visited in Ballymoney recalled seeing any paperwork in the garden, street or footpath.
The officer strongly denied having given the document to the man they visited in Ballymoney. His account was supported by a colleague who was with him during the visit and said he could account for everything the officer did at the house. He said there was no question of any police paperwork having been given to anyone.
He added that he had not seen the officer dropping anything, nor had he seen any documents blowing out of the police vehicle, which he would have done as he had been last to get into the car.
The officer who had the email before its loss denied failing to properly secure the document, stating that he considered the police vehicle to be a secure place. He described its loss as “unfortunate” and “accidental”.
After completing his investigation, the Police Ombudsman submitted a file to the Public Prosecution Service. The PPS found that the evidential test for offences under the Data Protection Act or Misconduct in Public Office had not been met, and directed that the officer should not be prosecuted.
Dr Maguire subsequently made a recommendation to the PSNI that the officer should be disciplined for breaching the Police Code of Ethics by failing to maintain the confidentiality of personal information, and by bringing discredit on the police service.
After considering the file, the PSNI’s Disciplinary Branch decided to address the failings under their performance regulations.