Chief Constable George Hamilton: By working with the community we can have a safe, confident, peaceful society
Chief Constable George Hamilton marks one year in office today. Writing exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph, he reveals his fears over the effect budget cuts are having on policing, his hopes for the marching season and the need for politicians to implement the Stormont House Agreement in full.
Twelve months after becoming Chief Constable, I'm still glad I got the job. It's an honour for me, because all I have ever wanted to do as a police officer is keep people safe. Becoming Chief Constable felt like a real opportunity to continue realising that ambition at the most senior level within the organisation. I still believe that. I knew the job would come with significant challenges but, in my view, that is what leadership is about.
The most difficult part of being Chief is knowing that while my officers and staff are working to keep people safe, a small but dangerous group of individuals are planning to murder them. On the other hand, the most inspiring bit of the job is the commitment of my officers and staff to continue serving the community despite this threat. I remain incredibly proud of the often untold story of the professionalism and bravery displayed by my officers and staff. Whether it is the police officer who went into a river to save a life or the IT experts who pioneered a forensic E-Discovery tool; it is the everyday stories of keeping people safe that make my job worthwhile.
The last year has been one of tough choices; and many more lie ahead. While declining budgets had been a significant feature of policing for a number of years, I could never have envisaged the scale and challenge of the in-year cuts that came just weeks after taking the job.
Like all other public services, policing is changing. The level of change that will be required during my time as Chief Constable is colossal.
Our core purpose of 'Keeping People Safe' will not change; but the reality is that the PSNI is becoming a smaller organisation, losing more people each year than we can afford to replace. As we get smaller, the demands to which we are expected to respond are increasing in complexity.
Squaring this circle is not easy.
At the front end of policing, we receive on average 1,338 calls from the public every 24 hours. At the less visible end of policing, we currently have 1,048 ongoing investigations within Crime Operations Department, including investigations into murder, rape and organised crime.
Reducing resources means we have to prioritise all this demand in a way that we have never had to before. This isn't easy. I know that when people pick up the phone, they expect police to be there for them. But I also firmly believe that the community we serve will support us in prioritising our resources to protect the most vulnerable in the community, when they need it most.
If there is a risk to life or an emergency we will be there for people. Those who do harm to others will continue to be investigated and put before the courts. This includes crimes such as hate crime, domestic abuse, acts of terrorism, violent sexual offences and child exploitation.
But in order to prioritise these areas, there has to be give elsewhere. It's already a case that calls from the community that are not an emergency are being dealt with in slower time through the use of scheduled appointments and telephone resolution without police attendance. More and more non-emergency calls will have to be resolved this way in the future.
But with challenge comes opportunity. The financial realities facing me as Chief Constable are the same faced by every other leader across public services, and it is my hope that our reducing budgets will force us to think more radically about how we deliver public services. Whether it's responding to anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse or mental health, we often find that different public services and agencies are dealing with the same vulnerable individuals, families and neighbourhoods; and we go back to them time and time again.
By working more collaboratively across public services we can improve the support we provide to the most vulnerable in our community and save money. That was why, in my first year, it was important to re-structure our policing districts to become coterminous with the new council areas. This will enable community planning to be the vehicle for local service delivery in a more joined-up way and at less cost. Exploiting the benefits of community planning is essential for public service leaders if we are to match our collective demand to our reducing budgets.
Forecasts for budgets in the future give me cause for concern; but, if it's possible, dealing with the past concerns me even more. While the past places a financial pressure on policing, it is the impact on public confidence that frustrates me the most.
Over the past 16 years the police service I lead has played a huge role in delivering the relative peace that we enjoy today. The result has been confidence in policing in levels that I would not have believed possible when I joined the police service in 1985. It deeply concerns me that all this progress is left at risk while PSNI continue to bear the brunt of a broader failure to deal with the past.
Within weeks of becoming Chief Constable I spoke about this issue, warning that "action is needed if policing and, indeed, our peace process, is not to be dragged backward".
Months later it seemed that action had indeed been taken, in the form of the Stormont House Agreement. In particular, the proposal for the Historical Investigations Unit would remove responsibilities for the review and investigation of acts of violence during the troubles from the PSNI, allowing us to concentrate on Keeping People Safe in the present and the future.
It will be a huge mistake to stall progress on these proposals, a mistake that neither policing nor our society can afford.
For some people in our community, our society remains a contested space. There is no doubt that policing in a contested space places a financial strain on PSNI, and a considerable drain on public confidence.
But there are reasons for hope.
2014 was one of the most peaceful marching seasons for several years, made possible by responsible leadership from a range of people in a position to bring positive influence. Already in 2015 we have seen some significant parading events take place successfully. Despite the lack of implementation of a long-term resolution on parading issues, and the continuing frustration within some of our communities, violence and disorder is not inevitable. While policing will prepare for every eventuality, it is our hope that this leadership will prevail in the weeks ahead.
We need politicians, civic leaders and communities to commit every effort to resolving the parading issue. The cost of the current stalemate is more than financial. At Ardoyne we have seen how violent dissident republicans have sought to exploit the ongoing protest situation for their own ends by launching five attacks on police over the last year, at the same time endangering the wider community who could just as easily have been caught up in the incidents. This is not a situation that our society should continue to tolerate -efforts must continue to resolve this issue.
Having been a police officer for 30 years, having served in the darkest of times and during times of immense change and hope for the future, I remain enormously optimistic about what can be achieved when the police and the community work together. It takes leadership and bravery from both, but anything is possible when there is a shared commitment to a safe, confident and peaceful society.