Big drop in PSNI use of stop-and-search powers since 2011

Police search properties in the Toomebridge area following the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr in 2011
Police search properties in the Toomebridge area following the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr in 2011

Police complacency and lack of confidence in stop-and-search powers for munitions without reasonable suspicion have been blamed for a significant drop in their use, an independent reviewer said.

The number of searches stands at approximately a seventh of the total five years ago, according to security powers watchdog David Seymour, although dissident republican devices are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

He said: “There were a number of possible explanations but the PSNI has concluded that there were three main factors in play – officer confidence in the use of powers, complacency and concern that support might not be forthcoming if the exercise of the power resulted in a complaint being made.”

Munitions have been used to deadly effect in Northern Ireland – Catholic PSNI constable Ronan Kerr was killed when a bomb exploded under his car in Omagh in 2011.

Mr Seymour said good work by the PSNI continued to save lives. Better training of officers is being introduced.

In 2014/15 use of the power to stop and search for munitions without reasonable suspicion fell by 14 per cent following a drop of 34 per cent the previous year.

Mr Seymour independently reviews the operation of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 which confers special powers. He said five years ago the number of such stops to search for weaponry was 29,391.

He said: “That (the current figure) is approximately one-seventh of the use five years ago.

“Some might say that the power was possibly over-used in the past. Nevertheless the PSNI are concerned, given the ongoing security situation, that the power was now being used too infrequently.”

Officers have recovered mortar-type weapons from a graveyard in Co Tyrone.

In May last year two partially-exploded bombs were discovered at an army reserve base in Londonderry.

Mr Seymour added: “The worrying new trends are the increasing sophistication of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the reckless selection of targets where there is a real risk of harm to the public, for example the use of a device disguised in the advertising hoarding of a betting shop in the Ardoyne and attacks on two hotels that were hosting PSNI events.

“Police officers, prison officers and the armed forces remain as prime targets though the methods used are indiscriminate and civilian lives are also put at risk by such tactics.”

PSNI chief constable Alan Todd said it is essential that police are effective in keeping people safe, and accountable for how they do that.

He said: “This is particularly important where we exercise police powers in respect of our fellow citizens.

“The quoted aspect of the report shows that we constantly scrutinise and seek to understand the use of such powers to ensure that use is necessary, proportionate and thoughtful, and address relevant issues as they may arise.”