BBC News

Black Lives Matter protest response 'damaged' PSNI's reputation

By Julian O'Neill
BBC News NI Home Affairs Correspondent

Published
image copyrightPacemaker
image captionPSNI officers issued 68 fines under Covid-19 regulations at Black Lives Protests in June

The reputation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was damaged by its handling of Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Londonderry, a Policing Board report has found.

The board has questioned whether the PSNI approach was lawful and called for a review of all fines and prosecutions from the rallies on 6 June.

Officers issued 68 fines under regulations limiting public gatherings.

The chief constable said the PSNI would "take time" to consider the findings.

The outdoor events, attended by hundreds of people, were in response to the death of George Floyd in the United States in May.

The Policing Board tasked its human rights adviser John Wadham to undertake a wide-ranging review of the policing response to Covid-19 between March and June.

Overall, the force's performance is judged "generally positive".

'Approach sent the wrong message'

The PSNI had to contend with rules they had no advance sight of, that changed frequently and were "often flawed or had significant gaps".

However, the report made critical observations of the PSNI over the Black Lives Matter protests amid allegations a harsher stance was taken compared to other gatherings.

At the time, politicians had appealed for the rallies not to take place.

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionThe report said the police's approach to the protests 'sent the wrong message'

Operational orders to officers recognised the need to "keep people safe" during the pandemic.

But there was no mention of facilitating peaceful protests, in line with human rights law.

Footage from CCTV cameras and police body-worn video "reflect the absence of any careful consideration of the right to protest", the report found.

"Protesters who raised their rights were told the (health) regulations were the law… none of the clips appeared to consider the attempts by the protesters to obey social distancing guidance.

"The approach sent the wrong message and damaged the reputation of the PSNI."

It added: "A court might rule that the actions of the PSNI were unlawful."

Legal actions

Lilian Seenoi-Barr was involved in organising the protest in Derry and said there was "awful decision-making" on the day.

"It's been 159 days since the protest and the PSNI have not issued an apology," she told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster.

"It's now time that racial literacy and a commitment to anti-racism should be considered a key competency for entering into the policing profession and the policing make-up should also make the effort to educate themselves about what racism is.

"I think the executive must now implement a racial equality strategy as a matter of urgency because we would have not had to go out and protest if racism did not exist in this country."

There are a number of legal actions challenging the police response.

The report also remarked that the Ethnic Minority Police Association of the PSNI has taken issue with how the events were dealt with.

"The association noted that the previous instruction to officers that no fines should be issued without consent from senior officers did not apply during these protests."

The handling of the rallies is also subject to an investigation being conducted by the Police Ombudsman.

Reacting to the report, Patrick Corrigan, the Northern Ireland director of Amnesty International, said: "The police's potentially discriminatory approach to the protests seriously damaged community relations - damage which must now be repaired.

"No-one should be left with a criminal record for taking a peaceful, socially-distanced stand against racism."

Scrutiny welcomed

Chief Constable Simon Byrne said he welcomed "the scrutiny into the police response" into the protests.

"We will now take time to consider its findings and recommendations."

The board's report also stated that the use of spit hoods should cease by 31 December.

They were introduced at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March after a number of incidents in which officers were spat at or bitten by members of the public.

The report found that personal protection equipment should be adequate to protect officers instead.

The Police Federation, which represents rank-and file-officers, said the PSNI should resist the recommendation to phase out spit guards.

Its chairman Mark Lindsay said: "We are of the firm view that guards afford additional and much-needed protection for officers who fear for their own health and well-being.

"It is wrong to deny them a key piece of equipment - equipment and protection they have been crying out for over many years."

Related Topics

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Police Service of Northern Ireland

More on this story

  • Coronavirus: PSNI investigated for regulation enforcement