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Police issue letters to 115 individuals after error in stop and search authorisation

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has written to 115 individuals who were stopped and searched in order to inform them of an error which meant that their stop and search did not have the correct authorisation.

Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray commented:

“The individuals were stopped under section 24, schedule 3 paragraph 4A (1) of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act (2007) between 30th July and 11th August 2020. Of the 115 individuals stopped and searched three were under 18 at the time, and in their cases we have written to their parents or guardians.

“The Police Service operates within a strict framework of accountability around stop and search. Part of this framework requires that the power to stop and search under the Justice and Security Act can only be exercised with prior authorisation by a Chief Officer or someone temporarily promoted to the role. On this occasion, an error occurred because the authorisation was considered and signed by an individual who was an Acting Assistant Chief Constable rather than being temporarily promoted to the role.

“As a Police Service, we use stop and search only when necessary for the protection of our community. We welcome the strict scrutiny and accountability that is in place to ensure the powers are used properly. We also recognise the importance of transparency around the powers and we have already notified the Independent Reviewer of Justice and Security as well as the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland of this matter.

“As soon as we became aware of the problem, we began a process to understand how the error had come about and what learning there is for the future.  Part of that process included identifying those affected by the error; and we have written to those individuals to inform them the stop and searches were invalid and to apologise for any inconvenience caused.

“We will continue to work with the Policing Board and the Independent Reviewer of Justice and Security around our use of our stop and search powers and will take forward any lessons learned from this technical error.”

The power to stop and search under Section 24 and Schedule 3, is a power which does not require the individual officer to hold a reasonable suspicion, and accordingly can only be exercised with prior authorisation by a Chief Officer.

When giving an authorisation, the officer must specify the time and date that the authorisation ends, up to a maximum of 14 days from the time the authorisation was given. The authorisation ceases to have effect at the end of 48 hours unless it is confirmed by the Secretary of State within that time.  In this case, the authorisation was specified for 14 days and confirmed by the Secretary of State within 48 hours of the authorisation.  

It is very rare for PSNI to appoint Acting Chief Officers. This acting appointment was only in place for the maximum time permitted (56 days) and was endorsed by the Northern Ireland Policing Board in order to ensure resilience at Chief Officer level until a temporary process was undertaken. There are currently no Acting Chief Officers and no future plans to do so.

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