The Chief Constable of the PSNI has apologised after a report by the Police Ombudsman, investigating the handling of the Black Lives Matter protest, identified severe damage to confidence in policing among some within the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland.
Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson says that claims the PSNI’s handling of protests in Derry and Belfast, as well as a counter demonstration in 2020, amounted to unfairness and discrimination were “justified”, however, she added her belief that this was not intentional and not based on race or ethnicity.
The Ombudsman blamed the situation on a failure by police to “fully understand their human rights obligations”.
The PSNI came in for criticism after a number of differences between their handling of the Black Lives Matter protests and a Protect Our Monuments demonstration in June 2020.
Against the backdrop of Covid-19 restrictions, PSNI encouraged demonstrators to gather in a Covid-19 compliant manner for the Protect our Monuments demonstration but had attempted to persuade organisers of the previous Black Lives Matter protests to cancel their events.
Also contrasting was that the PSNI had issued enforcement notices for breaches of the public health regulations at the Black Lives Matter protest but did not issue any at the Protect our Monuments demonstration.
The Ombudsman’s report found no evidence of harassment at the protests but added: “in undertaking planning for 6 June (Black Lives Matter protest), police failed to have sufficient regard to a number of issues including the international and domestic context of ‘Black Lives Matter’; a public response to the police use of force against George Floyd and other members of the black community in the USA, and wider concerns of racial inequality.”
Following the publication of the Ombudsman’s report in December 2020, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said, “the time is right to show some humility and say sorry”, six months after the events took place.
No apology was issued directly after similar findings were included in a Policing Board Report published in November. The Policing Board tasked its human rights adviser John Wadham to undertake a wide-ranging review of the policing response to Covid-19 between March and June 2020.
The review led to the Policing Board questioning whether the force’s approach to Black Lives Matter protests was “unlawful” and said that the reputation of the PSNI had been damaged by its handling of Black Lives Matter protests.
“The approach sent the wrong message and damaged the reputation of the PSNI,” the report said, adding: “A court might rule that the actions of the PSNI were unlawful.”
The PSNI has recently announced it is to establish a task force to help rebuild relations with black, Asian and ethnic minority groups.
The PSNI has a legacy of cultural underrepresentation of Catholics, women and ethnic minorities in its ranks. Latest statistics at the end of 2020 show that of its overall police officer workforce, less than 32 per cent are Catholic, 30 per cent are female and less than 0.6 per cent are from an ethnic minority background.
In response to the Ombudsman’s report, the President of the UK’s National Black Police Association, a serving PSNI officer, Andrew George labelled the PSNI “institutionally racist” in relation to existing systems and processes within PSNI which work to the detriment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.
The Ombudsman made a series of recommendations for future changes to police policies, namely the adoption of a human rights-based approach to policing protests, the review of Fixed Penalty Notices issued and potential redress and periodic reporting to the Policing Board on police engagement with BAME communities in Northern Ireland.