Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

PSNI's new Chief Constable George Hamilton: New man, same old issues

The incoming Chief Constable inherits one of the most unforgiving jobs in world policing. Criminologists John Topping and Jonny Byrne take a look at what's waiting in his in-tray

George Hamilton brings much local knowledge to new role, but political status quo could hinder his work

If a week is a long time in politics, then five years at the helm of the PSNI must have seemed like an awful lot longer for the outgoing Chief Constable Matt Baggott.

With George Hamilton recently announced as his successor, it will be the end of an era in which confidence, community policing and business acumen have come to define the state of policing affairs in Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding issues of public disorder, sectarian division and domestic terrorism as a significant constraint to Baggott's goal of "everyday" policing, "Mr Community Policing", as he was dubbed, will undoubtedly be the subject of an intense bout of comparison. Hugh Orde or Ronnie Flanagan; strategies and tactics; political savvy; operational successes... the list is endless.

But, whatever charges the various critics will lay at the door of the incumbent Chief Constable, without question it remains as one of the hardest – and most unforgiving – roles in modern policing.

Yet, aside from degrees in hindsight, what challenges can George Hamilton expect when he crosses the threshold at PSNI headquarters and what daily battles await to test his resolve and competence over the next five years?

From an objective viewpoint, it must be noted the new chief will have to become engaged in a process of delivering policing within what is essentially a polarised and broken socio-political system.

With the absence of violence as a perverse metric of peace, political inertia has become the defining characteristic of modern day Northern Ireland.

In this regard the intractable issues of sectarian division, violence and terrorism, so detrimental to local policing delivery, are going nowhere fast.

As a result, within many socio-economically deprived communities across the country a toxic mix of democratic deficit, paramilitarism, unresolved legacy issues and persistent criminality continue to generate, which some constitute a "policing vacuum" in their communities.

Thus, with many of these issues outside the direct control of the PSNI per se, whoever heads up policing will have to be a vocal champion of the fact good policing needs good politics.

On more of a pragmatic level, another key front will be the issues of confidence, expectation and consistency of service. With policing for so long having been at the centre of political progress in the country, the price of honesty as that which could, should, or actually is being delivered on the ground has been too high for many in political and policing circles.

Beyond official proclamations of confidence in the PSNI from the Policing Board, the empirical reality points to a picture which, in many areas of the country, is significantly less than the 80% figure set forth.

And this is not a critique of PSNI, or its service in and of itself, but rather an indicator of the fact the new Chief Constable (along with the Policing Board) need to inject heightened levels of openness and honesty into the public policing equation.

This, in turn, may help to re-draw the parameters of community expectation in the PSNI which for long have been set by politicians, not the people. Matching those expectations with PSNI's organisational constraints will be the key arena in which confidence can be won back.

Additionally, Hamilton will need to draw upon the "wave" of evidence-based policing currently sweeping policing organisations across the UK. With a significant focus on "what works" fast becoming the new organisational buzzword within the PSNI, the use of innovative and alternative means of delivering policing will need to be high on his priority list.

Not only will this help to shift attention away from the PSNI on all crime and quality-of-life issues, but so, too, it will create a space in which wider criminal justice and community knowledge can be used to greater effect.

With the country's advanced and burgeoning civil society as a site of "soft power", through which quality-of-life issues can be dealt with directly, the new era of the PSNI will need to be one in which returning to Patten's original vision of policing rather than just the police will be of benefit on many levels.

Ultimately, the link between local knowledge and a fresh approach will be critical to the Chief Constable's vision of "getting policing right". Yet beyond change as an inevitable consequence of George Hamilton's appointment, it is also important that, as a society, we, too, have a responsibility to help the PSNI move along its new path – whatever that may be.

If the social and political status quo remains around policing in terms of ambivalence to violence and the acceptance of terrorism (as we currently have), we are at risk of missing an opportunity for wider community transformation.

Set within the context of bigger global developments, we need to avoid remaining insular to the point of becoming an irrelevance and aberration except unto ourselves. And no better place could that begin than with the police, so central to the public psyche in the country.

As important as a new Chief Constable is, they are, alas, only one man or woman. And if the PSNI is forced to remain as an island within the current political system, it will be all change/no change – with communities as the expendable resource in the political merry-go-round that never stops.

Dr John Topping and Dr Jonny Byrne lecture in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at the University of Ulster

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