Belfast Telegraph

Getting to heart of the matter will require tenacity

In spite of the Chief Constable's best efforts, there is still widespread scepticism about the PSNI's commitment to community policing, say Jonny Byrne and John Topping

In little over a decade, the visible nature of police reform serves a constant reminder of how far Northern Ireland has come.

As a form of centrifuge, the process of policing change has acted to separate out the complex social and political issues of policing into manageable layers which themselves have acted as platforms for the wider shifts towards a more peaceful society.

Yet in spite of such progress, there remains outstanding issues as incompatible 'truths' within the narrative of normality, which, beyond the unproblematic majority, continue to constrain more wholesome community conceptions.

And especially within urban, working-class communities, this has manifested itself, insofar as the delivery of 'normal' policing remains somewhat of an ideal, rather than the de facto state of play.

Within many loyalist communities, there is a sense that the peace and political processes have passed them by.

With feelings of disengagement from the rest of society compounded by an absence of political representation, there is a perception that needs are not being addressed, in terms of incidents at interfaces, increases in local crime, lack of police engagement and distance from the decision-making processes.

This belies the notion of being sidelined from the transformative social and political changes, which have more fully benefited other sections of society over the past decade - with policing as the referent for such problems.

Furthermore, the emerging Sinn Fein and republican narrative about a residual 'dark side' contaminates notions of a new beginning, which has an impact upon community views and perceptions of the PSNI.

Claims related to agent-recruitment, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), Police Ombudsman's independence and supergrass trials do little to instill confidence, or encourage full engagement with the policing institutions.

Furthermore, the revelation that more than 300 former RUC officers who retired under Patten have been re-hired only serves to increase republican claims that elements exist within the PSNI who are not committed to a fully democratic, accountable policing process - whatever the reality actually is.

There is also evidence to suggest that the PSNI has not entirely bought into the 'policing with the community' philosophy.

Academic research and the recent Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) report continue to highlight inconsistencies surrounding community policing.

And, at the coalface of police-community interaction, and in spite of the Chief Constable's efforts, there remains a degree of community scepticism surrounding the PSNI's commitment to the principles of engagement, partnership and community ownership of the policing agenda.

Another, often overlooked dynamic relates to the fact that PSNI cannot work in isolation, requiring the support of all criminal justice agencies in the delivery of their role. However, Public Prosecution Service issues in terms of bail conditions, sentencing and case delays have an impact on the perceived role of the police at the community level.

A simple comparison of charge and sentencing of those involved in the London riots with those engaged in interface violence in Belfast reveals that, at 12 months for Northern Ireland versus 12 weeks for England, it is not surprising that community frustrations spill over into their first point of contact with the criminal justice system: the police.

The continued, severe terrorist threat hangs over the PSNI and communities, impacting upon the extent of engagement and support for the police.

From the PSNI perspective, such threats have a significant influence upon their operations in terms of officer safety. However, rolling checkpoints and stop-and-searches retain the potential to alienate communities which, by the same token, are being told that policing has changed.

The difficulty for the PSNI is finding the balance between officer safety, policing the terrorist threat and delivering a community-policing agenda. And while debate continues as to how significant the threat actually is, for the PSNI precaution must trump where bombs remain a reality for officers on the ground.

Notwithstanding the Policing Board's contentions as to increases in paramilitary assaults and shootings recently, it further adds to the difficulties of delivering 'normal' policing within communities where the extremities of post-conflict society merge into everyday experiences.

However, uncomfortable questions still need to be asked as to whether paramilitarism remains because of a policing vacuum; or whether recalcitrant forces simply wish to exert control at a local level. Set against such difficulties, it is, of course, too easy to blame the PSNI alone for the lack of normalised policing in working-class loyalist and republican areas.

Out of the 'us-and-them' culture from which Northern Ireland is emerging, policing is now everyone's problem. So to stand back and point the finger of blame at one organisation is to miss the problems of deep-rooted division, segregation and socio-economic marginalisation.

As the policing scholar David Bayley has noted, "policing works best where it is needed least". Thus, as a salutary lesson, defining success is also about accepting uncomfortable truths of where policing does not work.

And like Seamus Heaney's famous work, 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing', holding our tongue will only prolong the problems we must all face if we are to get policing right for the people it is meant to serve.

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