A report in this newspaper today gives a snapshot of the tremendous change in attitude towards the police by people living in what was once a hardline nationalist area of Belfast.
During the Troubles, police and soldiers came under constant attack in the greater New Lodge area creating a legacy of mutual distrust and unwillingness by the local population to engage with the RUC, and the later PSNI, on tackling crime. However, an academic study reveals that those historic barriers are being broken down.
There is no doubt that Sinn Fein’s agreement to support the new policing service and join the Policing Board has helped to bring about a change in attitude among the population. Yet it is still a slow process. Just over half of those polled said they would contact the police directly about crime or anti-social behaviour. One in four respondents said they would not. That shows the depth of the historic opposition to the police service.
Even given that background, a significant major ity of people accept the role of the PSNI in tackling crime and want community groups to engage with police officers in exploring ways to improve the quality of life in the area. A large number of people feel the streets of the area are becoming less safe, particularly at night and are also concerned about drug abuse, under-age drinking, physical assaults, interface violence and car theft.
The PSNI may take some satisfaction from the community’s increasing willingness to work with officers, but it should be concerned that local people think the force is largely ineffective in tackling crime. Only around 12% of those questioned thought the police were doing a good job. That dissatisfaction is manifested in the reluctance of many people to report crime to police. They feel there is little point in doing so.
That attitude, of course, only makes the job of effective policing more difficult. The police need the wholehearted support of local people in their job. That means reporting all crime and giving the police information on which to act. Equally, the police have to realise that their every move is carefully scrutinised and that local people want a speedy response when crime is reported and also want a more visible police presence on the ground. It is not just in the New Lodge Road area, or even from nationalists, that the lack of visible policing has come in for criticism. Adequate resources and effective deployment of those resources remain problems for the PSNI.
There is also a message for politicians in the report. The current dispute between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the timing of devolution of policing and justice powers to the new Executive is preventing more local accountability on policing. At a time when it is evident that the police are in receipt of greater cross-community support than for many decades, the politicians have a bounden duty to capitalise on that support.
Their bickering over the timing of devolution of powers and who should gain the policing and justice ministry does nothing to help speed up the acceptability of the police in every area of Northern Ireland. Only then can we truly say that society here has put its past behind it.