PSNI apologises for families' trauma over body parts' retention
A senior police officer has apologised for the distress caused to families following the revelation the PSNI kept body parts and tissue samples in 64 cases of suspicious and unexplained deaths.
Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said the PSNI had acted within the law but admitted relatives should have been informed.
The cases, including 23 related to the Troubles, were revealed as part of a UK-wide audit of all police forces.
The PSNI said the body parts were retained as part of investigations between 1960 and 2005 and could include skulls and organs.
ACC Hamilton said until 2006 police were under no legal obligation to inform relatives.
He said although all the items had been retained for "police purposes", he admitted that families should have been told.
"Prior to 2006 it wasn't custom and practice to routinely advise family members of retention of human tissue," he said.
"Since 2006 we have a high degree of confidence that we have been compliant with the requirements of the codes of practice of the Human Tissue Act."
Officers are now visiting affected families to advise them of their options.
ACC Hamilton said families "needs, wishes, trauma and upset" were at the heart of its response, but admitted that the matter could have been better handled.
"We offer an apology for the upset we are causing to families," he said.
"The problem has been that there was no review mechanism in place, there was no monitoring or audit so that decisions could be made... about how we would handle those pieces of human tissue, once the criminal justice element had been fulfilled.
"We acted within the law, but that's not to say families were treated properly. In fact, families didn't even know in many instances."
He said police were satisfied that there was a "good reason" for retaining the items, a decision that was largely based on the judgement of pathologists.
Police said the items kept related mostly to investigations into murders, suspicious deaths and road traffic accidents.
State Pathologist for Northern Ireland, Prof Jack Crane said material would be kept for two reasons.
"One would be that it would assist or help us determine the precise cause of death, and the other one would be for evidential purposes," he said.
"In many cases we carry out, we don't feel the need to retain material."
ACC Hamilton said most of it will be suitable to be handed back or dealt with in accordance with family's wishes.
"Even if it does need to be retained, there still needs to be that important conversation with families to explain that we have these items and why we have it and what we intend to do with it," he said.
Prof Crane said some of these cases had not gone through the criminal justice system and could still possibly come to court.
"We would be failing in our duty if there was something that could possibly have evidential value and we had destroyed or disposed off that might still be required," he said.
"There are a number of old cases being examined by Historical Enquiries Team and on some occasions they have come to us to ask us what material we might have that may be of assistance to them."
The cases were revealed as part of a UK-wide audit of all police forces.
The PSNI said the body parts could include skulls and organs.
Last week, it emerged that two police forces in England - Hampshire and City of London - kept body parts and tissue samples in 89 suspicious and unexplained death cases without notifying relatives.
The legislation was changed in 2006 making the retention of body tissue illegal.
The chairman of the Policing Board, Brian Rea, said it was a "traumatic and emotional" time for all the victims' families.
In a statement, he said: "Whilst the board recognises the timespan of the review and the majority of cases identified predate legislation now governing this area, the findings are without doubt deeply concerning and of significant public interest.
"The review raises questions that now require complete openness and transparency in response by the PSNI and the other agencies involved."
On Tuesday, DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said the news was "deeply troubling".
"It is difficult to imagine any circumstance where it is acceptable to retain the body parts of a deceased person without asking permission of the family or even informing them," he said.
Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said it was "a shocking revelation".
"It is now important that proper support mechanisms are put in place for the families involved and a proper public explanation for this practice is put forward and assurances given that it will not happen again," he said.
SDLP policing spokesperson Conall McDevitt also said it was "exceptionally worrying".
"This is a matter I will be raising at the Policing Board and keeping a close eye on," he said.