Signs erected in the Bogside area of Londonderry depicting a police officer with a target on his back are designed to discourage Catholics from joining the police.
That is the view of local DUP MLA Gary Middleton, who said the signs not only threaten serving PSNI officers with murder, they are also an attempt to intimidate people living in the overwhelmingly nationalist area out of a career serving and protecting their community.
The signs are understood to have been erected over the Easter period, alongside others bearing slogans such as ‘Sniper at Work’, ‘Join the IRA’, and simply ‘IRA’.
Mr Middleton said he had no doubt the people living in the Bogside would like to see the signs removed but said individual local residents would likely be too fearful to take it upon themselves to remove them.
The most worrying of the signs, he said, is the sign depicting a PSNI officer with a target on his back.
“The most sinister is certainly the one with the PSNI officer,” he told the News Letter. “It is deeply offensive and it is incitement to hatred. It’s a clear offence. It’s obviously encouraging the murder of police officers and that’s something that is completely unacceptable.
“I have no doubt the people in the community will find that unacceptable but it is very difficult for local people to stand up against those who are advocating violence and terrorism.”
Mr Middleton said the intention of those who erected the signs, in addition to the targeting of PSNI officers, is to discourage Catholics from joining the police.
Catholics make up about 31% of PSNI officers (up from around 8% at the turn of the millennium) according to a recent report about PSNI recruitment by the firm Deloitte.
If the force’s membership was to mirror the working-age population then this figure should be about 45%, that report said.
In the last several years Catholic officers have been specifically targeted by republicans, leading to the deaths of Stephen Carroll (shot dead in Craigavon in 2009) and Ronan Kerr (killed by a car bombing in Omagh in 2011), plus the maiming of GAA sportsman Peadar Heffron (in a 2010 bombing in Randalstown).
Asked whether the sign depicting a target on the back of a PSNI officer is an example of the intimidation discouraging Catholics from joining the police, Mr Middleton said: “I have no doubt that is the intention of the people who put that sign up – to not only single out PSNI officers but to send a message to those who might want to join the PSNI that they shouldn’t do so and, if they do, their lives are going to be at risk.
“Obviously that is concerning and it is going against the grain of what the PSNI are trying to do at this moment in time, in seeking to encourage Catholics who might wish to become police officers to join up.”
He added: “Joining the PSNI is a job which, while obviously it is not without its risks, is about protecting the community, serving the community – the opposite of those who put the posters up.”