| 1.1°C Belfast

Communities must be at the heart of policing

It has been nearly 10 years since the PSNI took their first steps on the streets of Northern Ireland as the final piece of the political 'jigsaw' and as a means of rebalancing the policing landscape in favour of serving the whole community.

Indeed, core to the deliberations of Chris Patten's report was the wresting of nearly 30 years of state monopoly on policing from the police and giving it back to the people.

However, the Patten report was only the beginning of a process of change which, over the past decade, has kept the PSNI and the policing institutions firmly at the centre of political attention - both locally and internationally.

With Stormont having creaked under the weight of delivering all-party political support for policing in January 2007, along with the issue of devolved policing and justice powers in April 2010, it is remarkable that the Northern Ireland Policing Board, as the institution charged with oversight of the PSNI, now accommodates an official of the GAA, Ryan Feeney, and a former hunger-striker, Pat Sheehan - as symbolic of the new, inclusive and more normalised environment in which policing is now debated.

However, it is important to pause and look beyond such symbolism and to consider the issues and challenges which still lie ahead for the PSNI, newly-elected politicians and Policing Board members - as those with the responsibility for making policing work for the whole community it is meant to serve, and take that forward into the next decade.

At least for the PSNI, a fundamental goal must be embedding Patten's core vision of 'policing with the community' at the community level.

While community officers on the ground are only too aware of the importance of effective community policing, more generally throughout the PSNI, the thick, amorphous ideal of this 'softer' style of policing has refracted into a variety of piecemeal practices and initiatives conducted in isolated pockets - something short of community policing as the core function of the entire service.

And from personnel through to policy, communities have rarely had any tangible sense of what they could, or should, be engaging with as part of the wider picture of policing in Northern Ireland.

So, in this regard, the newly- devolved policing and justice environment must be about supporting Chief Constable Matt Baggott through providing the PSNI with the tools to engender his community policing vision throughout the entire organisation - and to demonstrate such change where it matters on the ground. So, too, the Policing Board occupies a pivotal role as part of the policing landscape in holding the PSNI to account, oscillating between ensuring the PSNI engages with communities and meets local policing demands, while upholding fundamental human rights issues and balancing the books of a policing budget worth more than £1bn per year.

But, as key arbiters of operational oversight, the Policing Board has become bogged down in a 'bean-counting' target culture - adding unnecessary (and sometimes superfluous) bureaucratic pressure upon an already stretched police service which, in turn has clouded their 'common vision', as noted in the findings of a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. In this regard, it was historian E P Thompson who, in 1978, noted 'procedure is wholly self-confirming. It moves wholly within the circle not only of its own problematic, but of its own self-perpetuating and self-elaborating procedures . . .'

And so, the newly-constituted Policing Board must get back to the core business of assisting the PSNI's delivery of policing at the community level, with the measures and mechanisms to monitor that success (or otherwise) as a means to a community end - not a bureaucratic means in itself.

But, in considering the debate so far, it is vital to remain pragmatic; remembering the environment in which the PSNI operates is far from 'normal' by any definition of that term. In delivering their service, the PSNI, as an organisation, is effectively 'competing' with a whole host of social, economic, cultural, legacy and segregation issues at the community level, which for so long have remained hidden under the veil of the conflict but which are now surfacing as part of the post-conflict landscape, ultimately impacting upon the service they can deliver. And, crucially, many of these factors only serve to feed the environment in which dissident republicans have cranked up the threat they pose to 'severe', itself curtailing the ability of the PSNI and tentatively-supportive communities to engage fully and openly on policing matters.

As David Bayley, one of the Patten oversight commissioners argued, it was vital to remove the politics from policing in Northern Ireland as part of reform process.

However, it would be wrong to argue that politics ever did leave the policing arena. And, in view of the current policing challenges across all levels of community and policing institutions, political leadership is more important than ever to finish off that which was started more than a decade ago.

In this regard, we will only ever know that the policing landscape has been 'got right' when crime policy - and not politics - dictate the appointment of the Minister for Justice. But, before that moment arrives, there is still work to be done on everyone's behalf.