The PSNI chief constable George Hamilton and other senior officers have rejected allegations that they were guilty of "criminality and misconduct" in the investigation of corruption claims against other senior officers.
Mr Hamilton, the deputy chief constable Drew Harris and assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton are among a number of PSNI officers being investigated by the North's police ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire.
They said on Thursday that they “completely refute” the claims.
Dr Maguire has declared the matter to be a “critical incident”, which means it is “an issue the outcome of which could have a significant impact on the person making the complaint, on the police or on the wider community”.
The inquiry could take more than a year to complete, it is estimated. The officers, three of them the PSNI’s top brass, have not been suspended and are not standing down pending the outcome of the inquiry.
"I'm confident in my ability and I have the passion to keep doing this job," said Mr Hamilton at an Anti-Slavery Day event in Belfast on Thursday. "I've got every confidence that the ombudsman will be able to get on with his job and to investigate the complaints that have been made," he added.
Mr Hamilton said he was “absolutely confident that there will not be misconduct established”.
Allegations of bribery
The ombudsman’s inquiry relates to an investigation into concerns about the way in which the PSNI conducted an investigation into allegations of bribery and misconduct in public office in 2014.
Nine people were arrested in connection with that investigation, including former PSNI assistant chief constable Duncan McCausland and the former chief constable of West Yorkshire Police Mark Gilmore, a native of Belfast and also a former senior RUC and PSNI officer. All nine denied any wrongdoing.
Mr McCausland at that stage was already retired while Mr Gilmore was suspended on full pay in June 2014 pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations surrounding the awarding of contracts for the PSNI’s fleet of vehicles.
Ultimately, no cases were taken against Mr McCausland, Mr Gilmore or the seven others. Mr Gilmore did not return to work and retired from policing last year.
When informed in December 2015 that he would not face any charges, Mr McCausland called on Mr Hamilton to apologise for the way he had been treated. The chief constable responded that he was “wholly content” with the way the PSNI dealt with the case.
Mr Hamilton repeated on Thursday that he was satisfied the 2014 investigation was properly carried out and that he and his colleagues under investigation would be “vindicated”.
“I’m absolutely confident that there will not be misconduct established,” he said. “People who made these complaints are entitled to make them and I’d encourage them to have the confidence that I have in the police ombudsman and allow him to get on with his job,” he added.
“We’ll allow the ombudsman to do his job and we’ll co-operate fully with that and let’s see where the evidence takes the ombudsman because I’m confident that the outcome for us, the senior officers which have had these complaints made against them, will be a positive one.”
Notwithstanding that it could take well into 2018 before the investigation is completed, the chief constable hoped the ombudsman’s work would be carried out speedily.
Separately, Mr McCausland, Mr Gilmore and the seven others are taking a case for damages for wrongful arrest against the force. The PSNI said it would defend all these cases.
The ombudsman, Dr Maguire, has appointed a special team to look into the claims against Mr Hamilton and the other officers. It includes six investigators who have access to external legal advice.
Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly noted that the ombudsman did not recommend that any of those under investigation should be suspended. "We expect the ombudsman to keep this under review," he said.
Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt urged that the inquiry be conducted speedily "so the appropriate actions can be taken to restore the reputation" of the PSNI.
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said that she was confident the ombudsman "will conduct a thorough investigation that gets to the truth of the matter".
“The new beginning to policing was hard won. We must all defend its integrity. The best way to do that is to allow the Police Ombudsman’s independent investigation to continue,” she added.