The PSNI has been accused of “washing their hands” of people driving off from petrol stations without paying, after it launched a pilot asking retailers to take more responsibility for the issue.
Police confirmed that since the start of the month it has been testing a new approach to “drive-offs” from local petrol stations in Lisburn, Castlereagh, Ards and North Down.
Superintendent Brian Kee said: “Research has indicated that locally, 85% of all reported ‘drive offs’ - instances where people leave the forecourt without paying for fuel - are genuine mistakes and are not crimes that require police investigation.
“The police role in these reports then is purely to assist the business recover what is actually a civil debt.”
The routine attendance of police at such incidents, particularly those where a crime is not suspected, is placing “a substantial but preventable burden” on local police resourcing and budget, he added.
“The purpose of this pilot is to remove much of that burden and free up local police time to deal with criminality, identify and apprehend offenders and keep people safe.
“Local petrol stations received hand delivered letters in July advising them of the change. The pilot will be subject to ongoing review to assess the impact on local policing in the district.”
But UUP Lagan Valley MLA Jenny Palmer, who ran a petrol station in Lisburn with her husband for most of their lives, said the pilot did not make sense.
“It is an absolute folly,” she said. “I don’t know where police get their statistics from. There are very few people who drive off without pay that are genuine mistakes. Theft is theft.
“There is a very small margin on petrol and retailers cannot afford the time and expense of investigating these cases themselves.
“The PSNI is about to spend £50m policing paramilitaries but they can’t afford to chase someone who has committed a criminal offence.”
Her husband’s family had been in the petrol retail business for 60 years, she said.
She added: “This so-called pilot scheme reeks of the PSNI washing their hands of the situation facing petrol retailers.
“This is a disgraceful scheme and it will lead to an increase in theft as petty criminals will take advantage of the huge amount of red tape which petrol retailers will have to trawl through to get their money back.”
The pilot scheme should be “scrapped”, she added.