Bail scandal: PSNI computers do not alert officers to absconders

23/01/2017: George Hamilton speaking after a police officer was left injured in gun attack by dissidents in north Belfast.
23/01/2017: George Hamilton speaking after a police officer was left injured in gun attack by dissidents in north Belfast.
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The police’s computer system for dealing with bail is not set up to “proactively” highlight the fact that suspected offenders have run away.

In written answers to the Policing Board, the Chief Constable George Hamilton had said despite attempting repeated checks of terror suspect Damien McLaughlin’s west Belfast bail address, during which they failed to gain entry to the building, this was not “joined up” in the minds of police with the fact that he had stopped appearing at a police station routinely, as required.

(Read more about the chief constable’s answers, given to the Policing Board on February 2 and since published online, in which he talks about the circumstances in which McLaughlin vanished).

The “break down” in monitoring McLaughlin’s bail was down, the chief constable said, to both human error and “system weakness, ie NICHE computer processes currently in place showed to be ineffective at highlighting bail breaches in a timely manner”.

The PSNI said the force started using the NICHE system in 2008.

Asked if their issue was with the software itself, or just the way it is being used, their response was: “The NICHE software is not designed to highlight bail breaches proactively to police officers, although manual checks can be made.”

In addition, the chief constable also told the Policing Board officers had no telephone number for McLaughlin, who had pleaded guilty a few years earlier to possessing a large stash of guns and ammunition, plus other terrorist-linked items.

Police are now reviewing their bail procedures “to ensure that the processes currently in place surrounding bail checks are robust and will provide the necessary requirements for both the families of the victim and the police”.

Nelson McCausland, erstwhile MLA for North Belfast, and member of the Policing Board, said the situation at present means there is a ”clearly ineffective” system for highlighting bail breaches, and called for it to be “ addressed as a matter of urgency”.

He added: “Technology is playing an increasingly important role in policing and the PSNI should have access to the most effective and efficient equipment to assist them in their work.

“I will certainly be asking that the chief constable report to the next meeting of the board on what has been done to date and how soon this problem can be resolved.

“It also raises a wider question as to the adequacy or otherwise of other parts of the PSNI computer systems and this may require a full systems review.

“A lot of time, manpower and resources goes in to detecting and arresting suspects and yet this good work can be undone by weaknesses in a system that should be fit for purpose.”

McLaughlin denies four charges in relation to David Black’s death, including aiding and abetting it.

His trial is due to begin on February 20.