Ulster Unionist MLA for East Antrim Roy Beggs Jnr has brought the issue of the Transfer of Police Response Officers out of Larne PSNI station to Ballymena to the floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Explaining why he was introducing the debate to Assembly, the East Antrim MLA criticised the non-attendance of the Minister for Justice David Ford. It is normal for Ministers to be present to respond to issues raised in Assembly debates, but Minister Ford declined to attend citing that the Response officer transfer proposal was an operational matter for the PSNI alone.
Mr Beggs told the Assembly:
“The mantra of “That would be an operational matter” seems to trump everything. It is precisely that lack of engagement by and the inflexibility of the hierarchy in the PSNI and Department of Justice that has prompted me to raise this issue in the Assembly to ensure that there is adequate and wider discussion of the matter.
Also, and this is crucial, my Ulster Unionist Party colleagues and representatives from Larne Policing and Community Safety Partnership have been contacted by unprecedented numbers of serving police officers who are expressing their concerns, off the record, that the removal of these response police officers from Larne will reduce the effectiveness of policing there.
The proposal will remove 20 response police officers from Larne. In the future, one seventh of their response policing time will be spent sitting in a car travelling between Larne and Ballymena. How can that be good for policing or for response policing? Local knowledge will be diluted as officers share duties and briefings cover a wider area, and that, in my opinion, will leave the community in Larne more vulnerable to criminals. How will the people of Larne receive a timely emergency response during each shift changeover? The travel time between Larne and Ballymena is around 35 minutes, and if the officer is then required to travel on, perhaps to Islandmagee or down the coast, it could take another 25 minutes on top of that. In my mind, that would be unacceptable. In addition, Larne is a major port. What timely response from Ballymena will be possible to a port incident? “
Roy Beggs MLA suggested that the proposal to move response police officers from Larne actually breached the official Police Plan:
“ A key objective of the current policing plan for Larne is keeping police officers in the Larne area command unit visible and keeping the community informed about local policing issues. One of the key means to achieve that is:
“Continued linking of Neighbourhood Policing through Response Policing officers attached to Larne Area Command Unit”.
It seems very obvious that moving response police officers from Larne to Ballymena is a breach of the Larne district policing plan. It is a breach of the faith of the local community. The Service First plan might be an accountant’s dream, but I fear that it could be a police officer’s nightmare.”
The Ulster Unionist Party MLA added:
“ I accept that there is the operational independence of the Chief Constable, but there are equally important concepts such as public interest, duty of care and public safety. Another buzzword when discussing policing in recent years is accountability. Has the Policing Board been fully briefed? Has it been able to question the Chief Constable and senior officers on Service First? Has this plan been fully thought out? What alternatives have been considered? The failure to respond to numerous letters from Larne Borough Council and the Larne policing and community safety partnership show that there has been a lack of engagement.
In conclusion, I bring this matter to the attention of the Assembly because my constituents in Larne want to have an effective, professional, local police service in their area. It is totally unacceptable that the second largest sea port in Northern Ireland should be left only with a neighbourhood police officer team of 10. The team does work efficiently and effectively, but, if the separation occurs, they would be left without that closer working relationship with the response police officers. I hope that someone in the PSNI, the Department of Justice or the Policing Board is listening and will reconsider this plan, even at this late stage.”