We can't let mob rule take us back to bad old days
If we want a police service that is embedded in the community, we must face down the thugs that threaten it, says Jim Gamble
Published 06/09/2012 | 08:00
Sometimes the old ideas really are the best. Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern-day policing, described the police as "citizens in uniform - the people are the police and the police are the people".
Unfortunately, over the last 200 years, the concept may have got a little lost. Developments in policing style and the adoption of technology seem to have relegated the concept of community policing to a tactic, rather than a philosophy. 'Community policing' came to be seen as a particular type of policing to be carried out by a small number of officers.
The International Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland sought to address this. They deliberately avoided using the term 'community policing'; instead they spoke of 'policing with the community' - a phrase which they felt better reflected the type of relationship that they wanted to see between the police and the community they served.
Of course, the Patten Report was written 12 years ago and envisaged a different operational and political context than exists today. If the police truly are citizens in uniform, then, perhaps, we as a community get the policing service we deserve. We get a policing service that is shaped by the type of community we are.
When I joined the police service more than 30 years ago, we served in a very different Northern Ireland to the one we live in today.
My colleagues and I endeavoured in difficult circumstances to deliver effective policing for the communities we served.
However, in spite of the fact that many officers were absolutely committed to doing the best they could, the development of real community policing was doomed by a complex combination of factors. These issues ranged from politics and fear to intimidation and alienation.
We often reflect on the fact that it would have been impossible in those days for an officer to live in a nationalist let alone republican area.
However, the isolation and distance from grassroots communities was also driven by the early affluence we achieved, working long hours and earning high overtime.
In my experience, this combination of factors led to the almost complete evacuation of police officers from most working-class communities across Northern Ireland. For very legitimate reasons, we lived secret lives in the suburbs, hid the fact that we were police officers for fear of attack and only really engaged with others as a police officer when our identity was defined by the uniform we wore and, or the role we played.
We were no longer seen as ordinary people - mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, brothers or sisters. We were all too easily seen as a uniform, rather than a person; an arm of the state.
Your experience of community policing depended on where you lived.
My namesake in the training centre had gone to Donaghadee and performed their beat in a manner that would not have been out of place in an English seaside town.
I was stationed in Andersonstown and later Strand Road in Londonderry, where our patrols were heavily armed and routinely had military support.
Our engagement with the community wasn't focused on problem-solving, we engaged people when they needed our help, or at vehicle checkpoints to build intelligence.
Building real relationships was dangerous. Stay too long at someone's house, appear too friendly and you could place an innocent member of the community under suspicion.
We know only too well how ruthless terrorists kidnapped, tortured and killed members of 'their' communities for showing compassion, or appearing too friendly with the police.
None of this means that successful relationships were not built and that many officers did not aspire to be the best community servant they could.
Some won national awards for their prowess as community police officers, where they worked tirelessly to build trust, develop partnerships and make the communities they served safe. But it always appeared to be 'something else that the police did, something that only some of the police did', rather than a core function.
The peace process, a change in thinking and a dramatic reconfiguration of the police service has changed the landscape.
The Patten Report wanted to see 'policing with the community' as the core function of the police service.
Current Chief Constable Matt Baggott is regarded as an expert on 'neighbourhood policing' and we can see positive benefits in the allocation of resources to communities in most need.
We are seeing a change in atmosphere which allows officers to publicise their contact details in newspapers, like this one; we are seeing the police being able to build partnerships with agencies and private companies that simply would not have been possible during the conflict.
If ever there was a stark warning against complacency, it is to be seen on the streets of north Belfast over these last few nights.
More than 60 of your neighbours, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers have been hurt protecting you.
Yet again trapped in the middle of community conflict, we need to reflect on where we are and then remember, if you can, where we were and just how terrible that was.
I know it's not easy, but having come so far are we simply going to roll over and allow the gains of Patten to be lost to the self-indulgent mob?
If this society truly wants a police service that is embedded with them, then we need to embrace those police officers that live and work among us.
We must oppose those who would seek to intimidate our police by violence, or others who seek to separate them from the community by intimidating officers and forcing them from their homes. Because they are the people with nothing to offer but a return to an unhappy past.