Former Police Ombudsman employee arrested in connection with alleged theft of documents
Police investigating the suspected theft of sensitive documents from the office of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland have arrested a man.
The 69-year-old detained in England is understood to be a former employee of the police watchdog.
He was arrested in Dartford, Kent, by officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Serious Crime Branch in a joint operation with Kent Police on Sunday.
The suspect has since been released on bail.
As part of its role probing alleged police misconduct, ombudsman investigators can access classified documents from the PSNI.
The information sharing has been temporarily suspended in the wake of the alleged security breach.
Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin, head of the PSNI's Crime Operations Branch, said: "The PSNI can confirm it has become aware of a suspected theft of sensitive documents from within the Office of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland.
"We have now commenced a criminal investigation and are also carrying out an assessment of any impact which may be caused by the unauthorised release of sensitive material.
"Detectives from our Serious Crime Branch conducted a joint search operation with Kent Police on Sunday and arrested a 69-year-old man in Dartford, Kent, in connection with the matter.
"The PSNI and PONI have agreed to a temporary period of review during which sensitive information will not be shared."
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland said the Police Ombudsman’s office "has some very serious questions to answer".
PFNI Chairman, Mark Lindsay, said: "There is more than enough justification for a high-level inquiry into the manner in which PONI treats some of the most sensitive information. It doesn’t get much more serious than this. This is an astounding and very worrying state of affairs.
"The sensitive documents in question identify Police officers and potentially place lives at risk.
"We are extremely concerned over this alleged theft of sensitive documents. There is a criminal investigation underway, but in a wider sense, I am concerned at the operation of the PONI.
"If PONI cannot be trusted with sensitive information, then there’s a good case to be made to restrict the data.
"There should be a full investigation by Information Commissioner into what appears to be a blatant breach of the Data Protection Act and the incident should also be reported to the Oversight Commissioner, who has responsibility for all information obtained under investigative techniques.
"In the recent past, we’ve called for a full inquiry into the operation of PONI. We now repeat that call. A full inquiry into the operation of the Police Ombudsman has now become a minimum requirement, in order that both the public and police officers alike can have confidence in the office. PONI appears to act without proper oversight or accountability and this must not continue.
"It’s time to look at the work that PONI undertakes; the way it conducts itself; the approach it takes into investigating Officers doing the best they can for the community, and the internal procedures that undermine confidence in the way it operates."
Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said the news was "shocking".
"The alleged unauthorised release of sensitive information to lawyers is a gross betrayal of trust and has the potential to drive a coach and horses through the reputation of the Ombudsman's office.
"I’ve had concerns for a long time about issues in the office and raised some of them directly through questions to it. I was concerned and remain concerned that allegations of issues within the Police Ombudsman`s office have been investigated by its own staff and not the PSNI or any other outside body.
"Given the central role which some are suggesting the office will have in dealing with legacy cases, there needs to be a root and branch review before this can happen.
"Serious questions need answered. Where does the accountability lie or is the Police Ombudsman`s office a law unto itself? The Office also needs to make clear when it became aware of the alleged unauthorised release of information and what actions it took and when. The seriousness of this matter should not be underestimated.
"The Ombudsman needs to be as open and transparent as is practically possible - the sooner the better."