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The Police Service’s Strategic Community Engagement Team (SCET) hosted a Reference, Engagement and Listening (REaL) Event at Newforge, Belfast on 28 November 2023 with representatives from the Faith community from across Northern Ireland. The event centred on focus group discussions linked to several of the five pillars contained within the ‘Here for You’ Engagement Vision, namely attraction and recruitment, procedural fairness and local accountability.

There was also an opportunity for feedback around the interim guidance developed by the Service for Officers dealing with incidents of preaching and proselytism.

The organisations in attendance were Bahá’í Community, Belfast Synagogue, Church Army, Church of Ireland, Elim Pentecostal Church Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Northern Ireland Humanists, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral Armagh and the Zacchaeus Project. Members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Police Service’s Christian Police Association were also in attendance.

This summary document captures some of the important highlights and feedback discussed across the focus groups and plenary session.

Attraction and Recruitment

What changes could the PSNI make around its engagement to motivate members of your community to consider a career in policing? Are there any particular cultural challenges or barriers present?

  • Focus group discussions broadly supported policing as a career but concerns were highlighted around whether being an Officer could conflict with some religious beliefs and values given the important considerations around Police impartiality and neutrality.
  • There was acknowledgement in some groups that the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland and community perceptions around policing have created barriers to some faith groups considering a career in policing. Furthermore, concerns were expressed around MI5’s threat level assessment for Northern Ireland Related Terrorism remaining ‘Severe’ which impacts on effective attraction, recruitment and retention within the organisation. Recent events such as the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in February 2023 have also served to highlight the dangers faced by Police Officers and Staff.
  • In addition, the low starting salaries for Constables was highlighted as a significant issue given the stressful roles which they are expected to undertake within policing. Meaningful opportunities for professional development and clear progression paths for Officers and Staff were also noted as being key to retention across the Service. 
  • Workforce representation was discussed within all focus groups with an acknowledgement that the PSNI is not representative of all communities and attendees highlighting that there needs to be an additional focus on communities from outside of the traditional Catholic Nationalist Republican (CNR)/ Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) groups to help broaden interest in joining the Service in the years ahead. 
  • Views were also expressed that the entrance requirements for the Service present a barrier to recruitment within some communities. Applicants are currently required to have a minimum of five GCSEs (or equivalent) at A*-C grade, including English Language. Engagement with young people through schools was suggested as being “critical” to long term planning around having a representative Police Service. The Service has also recently updated its corporate approach to school engagement to ensure greater consistency through our three day work experience programme for post-primary schools which is ongoing across each District. 
  • Some people from local communities within Northern Ireland will have family or friends in the PSNI who they can speak to around joining the Service. However, this is not an option for many people, particularly within harder to reach communities which creates additional challenges in attracting potential recruits from certain groups or areas which the Service must work to address for the longer term. 
  • Groups acknowledged that there was also a responsibility on their part to promote policing as a career within their communities and celebrate their successes and highlight positive work being done where possible.

Local Accountability and Neighbourhood Policing

Can you tell us whether PSNI engagement at a local District level provides opportunities for your community to voice their views and concerns? Are there ways in which the PSNI could enhance local engagement or develop neighbourhood policing to improve opportunities for your community to hold it to account?

  • There was mixed feedback around how local policing interacts with communities with the visibility of police being highlighted as key to success in terms of providing better opportunities for engagement.
  •  Neighbourhood Policing was recognised as being vital to the community with a range of positive initiatives highlighted by attendees. The turnover of staff was noted as making relationship building challenging at times and there was an emphasis put on the fact that good neighbourhood policing can be personality driven by individual officers. 
  • There was a perception amongst some attendees that the only time Police are visible is when there is crime or anti-social behaviour; there was a desire for space to be created for communities and police to engage in a more positive and regular way. The Service is planning for the roll out of REaL events at a district level in order to consult and involve the views of the community on local issues involving District Commanders and other key personnel which will help to further build relationships and improve local accountability. 
  • Groups also encouraged the PSNI to consider utilising the faith buildings or community centres more regularly. This could involve, for example, visiting churches around the time when ceremonies are on in an effort to engage with the public directly rather than always going through its leadership.

Procedural Fairness

Attendees were provided with copies of the interim guidance developed by the PSNI on Street Preaching and Proselytism to help equip Officers to deal professionally and confidently with incidents where police engagement is required. Public external guidance can also be found on the PSNI’s website. A range of feedback was provided:

  • Groups acknowledged that this was a difficult area for policing as it requires the balancing of Human Rights across a range of parties. Attendees were also broadly supportive of the information contained within the guidance for both Police and the public via the PSNI website. However, suggestions around having a framework to ensure equality around the way in which the guidance is applied was suggested as potentially being useful. It was also noted that Local Councils have certain responsibilities, particularly around the level of amplification.
  • There was a lack of understanding around “where the line” is for street preaching that potentially crosses the threshold into criminality with attendees noting that the “rules of free speech must apply equally to all”. It was also highlighted that the document could potentially be seen as “one-sided” and focusing only on street preachers; there have been occasions where street preachers have come into conflict with or felt threatened by members of the public highlighting their support for the LGBTQ+ community. There was a distinction made around street preacher messaging being offensive to some people but it was noted that this should not prevent that viewpoint from being communicated.
  • One focus group undertook discussion around whether a document for preachers, potentially a Code of Conduct, could be developed that Church Leaders could sign off on in an effort to give the issue more focus and support. However, there was recognition that the people involved in preaching and proselytism that bring Police attention to it are often not doing so on behalf on any one faith or religious community.


The Service welcomes the participation of organisations representing faith communities in the first series of REaL events held by the organisation. The Strategic Community Engagement Team also appreciated the time you took to provide views around the interim guidance on Street Preaching and Proselytism. The Service has now finalised this guidance and it has been issued to all Officers and Staff. The guidance will be included in Gold, Silver and Bronze strategies where relevant to ensure it receives greater prominence in the planning and deployment of future operations and specific information will also be included in Operational Orders and briefings to crews involved during events.

In addition, the feedback provided in the post-event survey was very useful and any further views on this summary document would be very welcome. Some attendees highlighted other organisations which could be invited to future events, including the Evangelical Alliance, CARE in Northern Ireland and other representatives involved in the NICVA Community Faiths’ Forum. We look forward to holding another REaL event during 2024 where organisations will have the opportunity to meet and engage with senior representatives from the Police Service around the Here for You Public Engagement Vision.