Police in Northern Ireland must do more to protect and support vulnerable victims of crime, inspectors have found.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) raised concerns with how the PSNI handles cases involving child sexual exploitation, missing children and domestic abuse.
Inspectors highlighted evidence of good practice in the PSNI’s dealings with vulnerable victims but said more needed to be done to strengthen other aspects of its work.
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris said he accepted the criticisms but insisted the organisation had made significant strides to improve how it handles the rapidly growing number of cases involving vulnerability.
The HMIC official assessment grading of “requires improvement” was outlined in one of two separate inspection reports it conducted on the PSNI in February this year.
The second, which focused on how efficiently the PSNI deploys it resources, delivered a more positive verdict.
Overall the efficiency performance was rated as “good”. However, HMIC did raise concerns about the sustainability of the PSNI’s workforce model going forward.
Inspectors highlighted that almost 1,500 officers (20 per cent) are eligible for retirement in the next three years and questioned how the lost skills would be replaced.
The report also flagged a heavy reliance on overtime resources and noted high levels of long-term sickness.
HMIC’s Michael Cunningham said: “We were pleased to find that the service is demonstrating a good understanding of current demand for its services and is good at financial management.
“We have identified areas where it could be more efficient – including building a clearer understanding of future demand, and better planning for how it uses its workforce.
“However, we do have concerns with how the force responds to and protects vulnerable victims. In particular we were concerned to see inconsistencies in how staff recognise and assess vulnerability.
“I am encouraged that leadership of the force has made the protection of vulnerable people a clear priority. We will continue to monitor how this commitment results in improved service for vulnerable victims.”
The PSNI’s own definition of a vulnerable person is someone who needs special care, support or protection due to their age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.
Inspectors acknowledged the PSNI had prioritised such cases and had established a dedicated public protection branch.
But the inspection raised concerns around how some reports from vulnerable people are handled. It said the initial response was in the most part good but there were training inconsistencies, meaning not all call handlers had a comprehensive understanding of how best to safeguard a victim.
It found instances of call handlers ending 999 calls from domestic abuse victims too early. On one occasion a call was terminated while the woman on the line was being approached by her alleged attacker.
HMIC found the PSNI’s response to missing children cases was “not consistently good”. It highlighted concerns about risk assessment processes, questioning why “many” children that exhibited warning flags of being at high risk of sexual exploitation had been graded as only medium risk by police.
It said the PSNI was “not yet prepared to fully tackle child sexual exploitation”.
The PSNI’s response to domestic incidents was also rated “not consistently good”.
The report acknowledged the service had made tackling the crime a strategic priority, however it cited a lack of clarity around where responsibility rested for referring victims to partner and voluntary agencies.
Mr Harris said the number of cases involving a vulnerable victim or offender had increased dramatically in the past decade.
He said the HMIC had set out the “next steps we have to take”.