The Police Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, has said that claims that police handling of Black Lives Matter protests and counter demonstrations in Northern Ireland earlier this year amounted to unfairness and discrimination “are justified.”
While Anderson clarified that she believed that this was not intentional, and not based on race or ethnicity, she said that confidence in policing among some within the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in Northern Ireland had been “severely damaged.”
The Ombudsman said that she had decided to investigate matters after a number of people who had attended Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Derry on 6 June contacted her. These individuals alleged that the police had not been consistent in how they acted at the two events.
She said, “Given the particular nature of what the protests were about, I felt it was in the public interest that these issues should be addressed.
“It was important that I look at the relevant police policies and seek to establish if they had been applied consistently.”
The investigation was also extended to include the Protect our Monuments protest held in Belfast on 13 June, when Anderson received allegations that police had enforced public health regulations in a “discriminatory fashion.”
‘A number of differences in how police handled the two events’
Anderson’s report concluded that “there were a number of differences in how police handled events on 6 June and 13 June.”
These differences included police encouraging demonstrators to gather in a Covid-19 friendly manner for the Protect our Monuments demonstration, but encouraging organisers of the Black Lives Matter protests to cancel their events altogether.
The Police Ombudsman also noted that police “issued enforcement notices for breaches of the public health Regulations at the Black Lives Matter protests, but did not do so at the Protect our Monuments demonstration.”
Anderson said, “In undertaking planning for 6th June, police failed to have sufficient regard to a number of issues including the international and domestic context of Black Lives Matter; a public response to the police use of force against George Floyd and other members of the black community in the USA, and wider concerns of racial inequality.
“I also believe the use of the Serious Crime Act 2007 to caution organisers of this event was not appropriate.”
‘Determined to put things right’
Chief Constable Simon Byrne issued an apology after the results of the investigation were announced.
He said, “We tried our best to respect the public health requirements of the Northern Ireland Executive to save lives and at the same time deal with public outcry triggered by this awful death [of George Floyd].
“We operated within the legal framework available to us at the time, but the ombudsman is clear that whilst unintentional, we got that balance procedurally wrong.
“It is clear to me that some members of the Black and Minority Ethnic Community have been frustrated, angry and upset by our policing response and our relationship with them has suffered.
“For that I am sorry, and I am determined in that regard to put things right.”