Chief Constable's Opening Address 15th Anniversary Conference
REFLECTING AND REFOCUSING: 15 YEARS ON
Chief Constable, George Hamilton’s opening address
I want to begin by welcoming you all here this evening. Many of you have travelled some distance to be with us. You are most welcome to Belfast on this lovely autumnal evening.
I would echo the Chair’s welcome to the Justice Minister and her Executive Colleagues. We are very grateful to you for taking the time to be with us.
Welcome also to some of my retired colleagues who played such an instrumental role in the journey policing has been on over the last 15 years. It’s great to see you.
It’s a real privilege to be here this evening to mark 15 years of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. When I started out in policing over 30 years ago, an occasion such as this was almost unimaginable. The fact that a discussion on policing in Northern Ireland can bring such a broad group of people together in a positive and meaningful way is symbolic of the journey we have all travelled and the progress we have made.
The title for this conference – Reflecting and Refocusing – was thoughtfully chosen. Fifteen years on from the symbolic changes that gave life to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, it is appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on where we have come from and what we have learned; before turning our attention to the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Accountability; Human Rights; Service Delivery & Public Confidence
On 4 November 2001, the PSNI was established. On the same day the Policing Board was set up. Three days later the Policing Board held its first public meeting. Almost exactly one year earlier the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland had been formed. And in December 2003 the first Human Rights Monitoring Framework for policing was published.
So within a period of just over three years, accountability and human rights had been firmly established within the paradigm of policing in Northern Ireland.
Accountability and human rights are the foundations for effective policing; and as we reflect back over the last 15 years, I think we can be proud of how we have built on these strong foundations.
The result has been a transformation in policing and a broad acceptance of the policing structures across the community that we serve. Department of Justice research puts confidence in policing at just over 80%; in other independent research the figure is even higher. This is a truly remarkable achievement that is often forgotten in our 24/7 news agenda.
As the Chair so eloquently pointed out, it is people, who make change possible. The stories behind these confidence statistics are stories of bravery, resilience, hard work and commitment shown not only by the police officers and staff of the PSNI; but also by the community and by partners who work with us. The results can be seen every day.
In the 24 hours leading up to this event, for example, my officers responded to over 1700 calls for service; 90 of these incidents involved young people directly; while 87 centred around a concern for the safety of one of more members of the public. In over 130 of these calls for assistance a member of the public was hurt and in 120 my officers provided mutual support to our fellow emergency services.
As we take time this evening to reflect and refocus; I would like to take the opportunity to say Thank You to the police officers and staff of the PSNI. I am so proud of all they have achieved and the commitment they demonstrate, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to Keeping People Safe.
They continue to do their jobs while a small, but dangerous number of individuals and groups are actively planning attacks on police. The often untold story of the professionalism and bravery displayed by my officers, in the most challenging, and at times dangerous of circumstances; will always inspire me.
While human rights and accountability provided critical foundations for building community confidence, the issue of representativeness has also been an important part of our journey over the last 15 years. For a Police Service anywhere in the world to have confidence and consent, it must seek to be representative of the community it serves – in terms of gender; ethnicity and community background.
The Patten Commission saw community background as crucial to PSNI. The 50:50 legislation ended when PSNI reached the Patten target of 30% catholic officers in 2011. But our journey is far from over. Like all other Police Services the PSNI still faces challenges in achieving a Service that is truly representative of the community. Women, young people and members of the Catholic community continue to be under-represented in PSNI.
I am committed to doing all that I can to resolve these challenges. We recently commissioned research to get a better understanding of the barriers to recruitment, and we will be discussing the results with the Policing Board in the weeks ahead.
Policing in a Post Conflict Society
While confidence ratings in PSNI are high, at over 80%, we are by no means complacent. We know that there are communities in which trust in policing remains some way off.
By far and away, the greatest erosion of community confidence in policing relates to a series of well-known, but unresolved post conflict issues:
- Dealing with the past;
- Parades and protests;
- Flags and symbols.
In the absence of any alternative societal resolutions, these issues continue to be left at the door of policing and the broader Criminal Justice System. They sap community confidence and drain budgets.
Whether it is our “refusal” to disclose information; our “failure” to take down a flag; or the use of “too many” or “too few” police officers policing a Parades Commission determination - it is, more-often-than-not, the perception, rather than the reality of the police response, that has such a significant impact on confidence in policing.
I accept that we need to work hard at understanding and addressing perceptions of policing. Accountability, openness and transparency around our decision making become all-the-more important in responding under these challenging circumstances.
Fifteen years on from the formation of PSNI, our commitment to winning community confidence is as strong as ever. But, there is a growing sense now, that no matter how hard policing works at winning hearts and minds in those hard to reach communities, further sustainable progress on policing will be dependent on further political and societal progress.
I am an optimist and I see many reasons for hope. The recent resolution to the Twaddell protest and three relatively peaceful summers proves what is possible when good sensitive policing creates the space for others in community and civic leadership to reach solutions.
Work also continues on the Historical Investigations Unit and the other mechanisms for dealing with the past which were laid out in the Fresh Start Agreement. It will be a huge mistake to stall progress on these proposals; a mistake that neither policing nor our society can afford.
I don’t use the word “afford” lightly. The challenges to the policing budget are well known. Perhaps less well known or understood are the changes in crime and the changing nature of demand on policing.
Policing deals with everything from abandoned vehicles through to the international criminal gang trafficking human beings within our community. We strive not only to deliver visible neighbourhood policing but also to protect the vulnerable behind closed doors, from crimes such as domestic or child abuse. New crime types, such as cyber and financial crime, are emerging and changing all the time.
Responding to these challenges with less money and less people will continue to require major changes in policing. We will address some of these issues throughout our day tomorrow.
The journey that we have been on and the progress that we have made over the last fifteen years should give us real confidence for the future. I remain enormously optimistic about what can be achieved when police, partners and the community work together. It takes leadership and bravery from all of us, but anything is possible when there is a shared commitment to building a safe, confident and peaceful society.