The Police Ombudsman’s Office has disclosed that an investigation is underway into how the PSNI have enforced the Coronavirus Public Health Regulations at large public gatherings.
The investigation is examining whether police have been consistent in their approach to issuing fixed penalty notices on such occasions.
It follows complaints from members of the public who attended ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests at Customs House Square, Belfast, and Guildhall Square, Derry/Londonderry, on Saturday 6 June 2020.
The Police Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, informed the Chief Constable, Department of Justice and the Policing Board late last week that she was beginning the work.
Following the recognition of the outbreak of Covid-19 as a global pandemic, the Department of Health, supported by the Northern Ireland Executive, introduced Health Protection Regulations, which included measures to restrict the movement of people from their homes and the numbers of people who could gather together.
Mrs Anderson said her Office received complaints about the enforcement of the health regulations at the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests when compared to other large gatherings such as those seen at beaches and at the “protect our statues” protest outside Belfast City Hall on Saturday, 13 June and concerns that police had not done enough to enforce the regulations.
She said her investigation will focus on the police policy and how it was and is being implemented, including how it is being communicated to police officers ‘on the ground’.
Her Office has also been in discussion with Policing Board officials to ensure the investigation does not overlap with a review of the police response to Covid 19 announced by the Board last month.
The Police Ombudsman’s Office is empowered to investigate police policy and practice when it believes it is in the public interest to do so.
“The powers to enforce the public health regulations came under new legislation and there is the likelihood that they will continue to be enforced for many months to come.
It is in the public interest that there be an independent assessment as to whether the associated police policy is being applied consistently.
If we identify inconsistences and can make recommendations which will help improve policing of public gatherings, we will do so promptly.
If, however, we identify that there have been good reasons for taking different approaches on occasions, that is something the public should know and understand,” she said.
The legality of the fixed penalty notices is not a matter for the Police Ombudsman’s Office but rather one for the courts.