Police mugshots: Emails show PSNI policy confusion

PSNI crest

A Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) policy not to issue custody photos of convicted criminals has caused confusion among its own staff, the BBC has learned.

Unlike many forces in the UK, the PSNI does not routinely release mugshots of people jailed for serious offences.

The PSNI said requests are "considered individually".

However, internal emails seen by BBC News NI claim staff were told mugshots should not be published "in any case".

It emerged after families whose loved ones were killed by drunk drivers questioned why police would not release photos of the offenders.

The PSNI has said all cases are considered "on their own merits in line with legal requirements".

But in an email, a PSNI staff member said an unnamed assistant chief constable (ACC) had decided "no custody photos are to be released in any case".

An official in another email noted there had been a number of press queries on the release of custody images of defendants.

The PSNI staff member asked: "Do we continue to refuse media?"

'I fail to understand the rationale'

A meeting of the PSNI's senior executive team also discussed the issue of custody images, according to the internal records from last year, obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from the BBC.

Notes of the meeting referred to advice received from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

The notes read: "Use of custody images - ICO advice basically our decision. Data impact assessment should inform any policy."

A participant in the meeting was recorded as saying: "Think we're on sound ground in saying no - not releasing images."

Policing Board member Mark H Durkan said he did not understand why the PSNI takes a different approach to other police services.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) assembly member said he was aware of some instances where the PSNI's position has "upset victims of crime, further compounding their ordeal".

"In cases where someone has been convicted of a serious crime, I fail to understand the PSNI's rationale for withholding photographs from the media," he said.

"One of the key principles of our legal system is that justice must be seen to be done and the refusal to release these photographs would seem to run contrary to that."

A survey of police forces across the UK last year by BBC News NI found that many issue mugshots of offenders handed sentences above a certain threshold, such as a jail sentence of 12 months or more.

Among them was Bedfordshire Police, which was formerly led by the current PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher.

Former senior PSNI officer Jon Burrows said the force's current policy is "too risk averse".

He said police can release custody images for a "legitimate policing purpose", which can include "improving confidence in the criminal justice system, deterring crime and promoting public safety".

'Not accurate reflection of policy'

Mr Burrows said the PSNI could be concerned about potential attacks on criminals by paramilitary groups, but he argued releasing the images would help "undermine the very narrative that vigilantes rely on".

"Releasing an official custody photo also helps to prevent mistaken identity, because otherwise the press often rely on older photos or ones where the defendant has concealed part of their face," he added.

A PSNI spokeswoman said the emails were "not an accurate reflection" of its policy on the release of custody images.

"All cases are considered individually on their own merits in line with legal requirements," she added.

"The Police Service of Northern Ireland considers each request for disclosure of a custody image in accordance with legislation applicable in Northern Ireland, police service policy and ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] and data protection principles."