“The OPONI senior management is at present dysfunctional, there is a serious lack of trust between many senior staff”

snippet from CJI NI report into OPONIThe BBC report that the Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson is to quit his job before the end of his seven year contract.

Mr Hutchinson was due to leave the position in just over three years time.

“I acknowledge that personal attacks on me, criticisms, are becoming dysfunctional in their impact in the office and I have reflected on that and I have taken a decision,” he said.

The details of this will be announced at a justice committee meeting on Thursday.

Back in April …

At a meeting on 21 April 2011 the Police Ombudsman asked the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland to undertake an urgent independent review of the relationship between the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). This followed allegations made by the OPONI Chief Executive of a “significant lowering of the professional independence between our operations (OPONI) and those of our key stakeholder, the PSNI”. These allegations were set out in the Chief Executive’s resignation letter of 31 March 2011 to the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice (DoJ) in which it was further alleged that DoJ officials:

* “have interfered and meddled in the affairs and governance of the Office;” and

* “have made false and malicious allegations against the Chief Executive.”

A review of the allegations concerning the DoJ, to be conducted by Tony McCusker, was announced by the DoJ on 20 April 2011. This report was published in June 2011.

The forty page report was made public this morning by CJI. The full report is available online and will fill in the gaps I’ve missed in this summarisation.

The report makes six recommendations (page vii)

The Police Ombudsman should suspend the consideration of historical cases through the Critical Review Panel and initiate an immediate review to consider the most effective way of managing those investigation reports which are awaiting publication.

The Police Ombudsman should suspend historical case investigations except those currently being pursued jointly with the PSNI until the Strategic Plan for the Historic Investigations Directorate has been adequately resourced and becomes fully operational.

The Police Ombudsman should commission a full review of the Confidential Unit and the protocol for dealing with sensitive information ensuring that the needs of the OPONI as a civilian oversight body, are fully represented in the review and integrated within the recommendations.

The OPONI policy for the investigation of State related deaths (Article 2 European Convention on Human Rights) should be reviewed and clarified. Clear and unambiguous guidance on the policy should be provided to all staff.

The Police Ombudsman should carry out an immediate skills and competency audit of everyone having significant input into complex cases to ensure that staff are appropriately equipped to deal with such investigations.

The prioritisation regime contained in the Strategic Plan for the Historic Investigations Directorate should be reviewed and consulted on to reflect the needs of victims’ families, the police and the wider public interest.

The main body of the report looks at various aspects. Section 3 looks at the process for handling historic cases. The CJI’s report frequently mentions that its ‘inspectors’ are not ‘investigators’ and were not re-examining the facts feeding into the OPONI’s findings.

An OPONI report into the McGurk’s bar bombing was issued in July 2010 and subsequently “withdrawn after mistakes had been pointed out”. The final report was then issued on 21 February 2011.

3.12 Inspectors viewed draft reports leading up to the presentation of the first report on McGurk’s bar in July 2010. These earlier draft reports had been more critical of police action than the report that was presented to the families in July 2010. The SIO in the case had been updating families with his findings as the case progressed therefore the perception of the families receiving the July 2010 report was that there had been a substantial lessening of the criticism of police actions compared with the information on the case they had already received.

3.13 During the progress of the investigation report the Senior Director of Investigations (SDI) required a different SIO to conduct a comprehensive review of the initial investigative report. Following the review, an updated draft report was prepared which was less critical of police action and this is the report that was presented to families in July 2010. The SIO who carried out the review believes that this was appropriate given his assessment of the strength of evidence used to support some of the more critical findings.

The CJI inspectors examined 13 unpublished reports that have not reached the stage for final publication. One particular case had first been reported to OPONI in 2005 and their report has gone through a number of redrafts in the subsequent period.

3.20 In early May 2010 the draft report was circulated amongst senior OPONI staff and the SIO in this case believed that there was general agreement as to its content and findings. The SIO and another Director stated that the Police Ombudsman had indicated that the report was generally in a state to be published. This report retained the investigators’ original findings with regard to complaints made.

3.21 However, this report was changed substantially later in May 2010. It is unclear exactly why the report was changed.

Section 4 looks at OPONI leadership and management and the report authors were not afraid to use the term ‘dysfunctional’ (several times).

4.12 There have been serious divisions amongst senior management of the OPONI which has affected the operation of the OPONI in its day-today functions and the morale and attitude of staff throughout the organisation. Two very senior staff had communicated to the Police Ombudsman that they wished to be disassociated from some of the work of the OPONI and for one of the officers, this had been ceded to …

4.14 The OPONI senior management is at present dysfunctional, there is a serious lack of trust between many senior staff and little confidence amongst Directors and some investigators in how historic cases are dealt with.

It concludes:

6.2 In the context of Northern Ireland in order to ensure public confidence, the perception of ‘independence’ in the work of the Office of the Police Ombudsman is as important as actual independence. The police need to believe that complaints against them will be treated fairly and impartially while the community require confidence that the accountability mechanisms are robust to deal with concerns over policing …

6.5 The answer to this problem is a complex one and probably will not serve to support any particular view point in total, as all those involved in the debate and discussion can find evidence from this inspection to support their particular assertions. Much of what the OPONI handles on a daily basis (current complaints) is dealt with in a professional and appropriate way. At the same time this review raises important concerns around the delivery of reports into historical cases. The role and behaviour of senior management is also critical to the effective functioning of the OPONI …

6.8 A controversial narrative has developed in relation to the existence of a personal friendship between a staff member within the OPONI and one within the PSNI which has served to undermine the operational independence of the OPONI. In the course of this inspection we interviewed the relevant staff as to the nature of their relationship and they have stated that at all times they have been “entirely professional” in how business was conducted. Moreover both the Chief Constable and the Police Ombudsman stated that they had no evidence of any inappropriate relationship between these officials. In the light of this assurance and the absence of any tangible evidence it is difficult to draw any other conclusion …

6.13 A further issue relates to the process of investigation itself and the extent to which the work can be described as independent. A number of concerns were raised about the content of individual historical investigations. It was outside the brief of this inspection to re-examine the evidence and conclusions from either published reports or work in progress. What is clear from the inspection, however, is the flawed nature of the investigation process used in historical cases. It seems to be buffeted from a number of different directions. This leads to a lack of confidence among many of those involved in the process including some investigators themselves, victims’ families and their representatives and the police …

6.15 It is our view that the investigation into historical cases should be suspended until the Strategic Plan for the Historical Investigations Directorate has been adequately resourced and becomes fully operational …

6.16 Our overall conclusion is that the flawed nature of the investigation process in historic cases, the divisions within senior management, and concerns around the handling of sensitive material have undermined confidence in the work of the OPONI among some staff and key stakeholders. These issues have led to a lowering of the operational independence of the OPONI. It is an urgent requirement that these issues are addressed in response to this report …

The question for victims, current and retired officers and politicians is whether the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Norther Ireland is being well run and whether the organisation and its processes fit for purpose. Al Hutchinson will be ‘up the hill’ in front of the Justice Committee on Thursday.

And it sounds like the DoJ will be drafting a job advert about the same time.

 

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.