Reflecting on 15 years of policing
Thank you for having me here this morning. It is good to see some familiar faces who have been so important to the policing journey over the last fifteen years. But it’s even better to see so many new, young faces in the audience. I hope that you will bring fresh thinking and fresh challenge to our conversation this morning.
Reflecting back – moving forward
Importantly, the agenda for today is not just about reflecting back – it is about moving forward. This is important because the world is changing in a very rapid way. The change is happening and felt at a global, national and local level. Our economic future is tentative and dependent on events elsewhere; our communities are shifting and changing but community division remains an issue; emerging technologies pose wonderful opportunities as well as expose significant risks.
While traditional crimes are showing some reductions, new crimes including cyber enabled crime, human trafficking and increased offending against the vulnerable are presenting new challenges. Police are also now dealing with a huge range of non-crime incidents which are not captured in police recorded crime. Issues relating to “public safety & welfare” take up huge amounts of our time and resource and increasing numbers of incidents involving people with mental health issues are placing increasing demands and risks on policing.
With this myriad of challenges at the forefront of my mind, I want to take some time this morning to reflect on the journey and the learning of the last fifteen years, before finishing with some thoughts around how we approach the challenges and opportunities in the years ahead.
So to begin with… some reflection…
In a democracy, effective policing must be based on consent across the community. In Northern Ireland, our troubled history created the situation where many in the community did not feel they could or should give their consent to police. As Patten himself explained in his 1999 report: “In contested space, the role of those charged with keeping the peace has itself been contested... Policing therefore goes right to the heart of the sense of security and identity of both communities and, because of the differences between them, this seriously hampers the effectiveness of the police service in Northern Ireland.”
Patten’s blueprint marked a “New Beginning to Policing in Northern Ireland”. We are now 15 years on from that blueprint. Having served as a police officer for over 30 years – through dark times and through times of hope and change – I can say without exaggeration that the Police Service Northern Ireland has undergone a remarkable transformation. Today we enjoy confidence and trust across the community and independent surveys tell us that our confidence levels are at their highest since records began.
Something to be very proud of? Yes.
A reason to believe that our journey is complete? No.
We are proud of all that we have achieved. But much work remains to be done; as I will explain later. There were 175 recommendations in Patten, each important in their own right. Time today does not permit a recommendation by recommendation discussion. Instead I want to highlight a number of core elements which have been instrumental in the transformation in policing and public confidence.
The accountability mechanisms provided by the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Criminal Justice Inspectorate (NI) and the Office of the Police Ombudsman have been critical elements in building trust and public confidence in policing.
From PSNI’s perspective, accountability involves creating a real partnership between the police and the community - a partnership in which policing reflects and responds to the community’s needs.
The role of the Northern Ireland Policing Board has been essential in this regard. Through the Board and the local Police and Community Safety Partnerships, the community have an opportunity to shape policing priorities. While the Chief Constable holds operational responsibility for policing; the 19 member Board, made up of political and independent members, not only hold him to account for the delivery of policing; but also inform, advise and contribute to policing decisions in a very real and meaningful way.
The session after coffee this morning will cover lessons from accountability and oversight in more detail.
The second of the core elements of the Patten blueprint that I want to touch on is Human Rights. The Patten Report astutely observed that “upholding human rights and upholding the law should be one and the same thing.” Human Rights have been embedded by PSNI. Fifteen years on, they have become an organisational instinct, rather than simply a procedural point to be remembered.
Every PSNI officer makes a commitment to human rights when they take their oath of office. Protecting human dignity and upholding human rights are also woven into the PSNI Code of Ethics which sets out the standards and behaviours expected from police officers.
Human Rights have been incorporated into our policy and practice and it has become the norm for human rights to guide the decisions we make and the operational activity we undertake. Whether considering use of coercive powers; or deliberating over budget cuts, our organisation will always look to our obligation to keep people safe and our commitment to uphold the fundamental rights of the individuals and communities that we serve.
While human rights and accountability provided the critical foundations for building community confidence, the issue of representativeness has also been an important part of our journey. For a police service anywhere in the world to have confidence and consent, it must seek to be representative of the community it serves.
The Patten Commission saw representativeness, and in particular, community background as crucial to the PSNI. Patten’s recommendation on 50:50 legislation ended when PSNI reached the target of 30% catholic officers in 2011.
But our journey is far from over. Like all other police services 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.
Both the Chief Constable and I are committed to doing all that we 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 with the Community
The final important element from the Patten blue print that I want to mention is Policing with the Community. Patten defined Policing with the Community as: “the police participating in the community and responding to the needs of that community, and the community participating in its own policing and supporting the police”.
None of the progress over the last fifteen years would have been possible without police working in partnership with the community. The stories behind our 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.
To give you one small but powerful example – it was community information that helped take £2.7 million worth of drugs off the streets in just three weeks during our recent Operation Torus against street level drug dealing.
Since its inception, PSNI has been committed to “Policing with the Community” as the ethos through which we deliver our policing service. While we have made significant progress, there is still some way to travel on this journey.
Policing and the impact of unresolved issues
We know that there are communities where people are much less likely to work in partnership with police – either because they don’t yet trust us or because they are too scared.
My message for people living in these communities is simple. We are your police service. We want to protect you and we want to work with you for the safety and well-being of your community. You have my absolute commitment that we will continue to work hard to win your confidence and support.
I know that it takes more than words – action and delivery are critical.
While policing will continue to do all it can to build trust and confidence in these hard to reach communities; it is becoming increasingly clear that making further policing progress will be dependent on further political and societal progress. Many of you will have heard the Chief Constable making the point last week that:-
“… the greatest erosion of community confidence in policing relates to a series of well-known, but unresolved issues from our peace process: dealing with the past; parades and protests; flags and symbols.”
PSNI need the support and leadership of our political and civic leaders to make progress on these issues so that we can get on with the job Keeping People Safe.
Building trust under threat
Policing in a peace building society remains complex. While peace is one thing nearly everyone in our community wants, for some people violence is their only answer. My officers and staff are continuing to deliver a policing service while a small, but dangerous number of individuals and groups are actively planning attacks on police.
They pose a threat not only to police, prison officers and other members of the security services; but also to any members of the community who may get in the way of their plans.
As I have already explained, we cannot deliver effective policing without the trust and consent of the community. The groups who advocate the use of violence look for perceived failures in policing in order to garner community support.
Our policing history has taught us a lot. Whilst we are seeking to protect life, we understand that police actions (and at times inactions) can have a negative impact on community trust in policing. Real or perceived, the use of police powers such as stop and search; vehicle check points; and house searches can cause unease, anger and distrust in the community. The Patten blueprint of Policing with the Community, accountability and human rights are all the more important in such challenging circumstances.
What would a 2016 blueprint look like?
There is no doubt that the Patten blueprint has stood the test of time and that its core elements are as relevant for policing today as they were fifteen years ago. However, Patten was written at a moment in time. It could not forecast how fast or slow the peace process would progress. Nor could it foresee the financial challenges that are dominating the policing and public service agenda today.
In response to austerity, policing is changing. Our core purpose of Keeping People Safe by Policing with the Community will not change; but the reality is that 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 scale and complexity.
Squaring this circle is not easy.
Perhaps, if there were another “blueprint” to be written in 2016, it would not be a blueprint for policing; but a blueprint for change across public service delivery, enabling better partnership working and supporting the outcomes based approach as described in the Programme for Government.
Collaborative working - future policing & public service delivery
PSNI have welcomed the Programme for Government. It has set a clear direction for travel that is anchored in collaborative working right across public services.
In the last week the PSNI had over 11 000 calls for service. Only 16% of these calls were related to crime. 15% were related to antisocial behaviour; while 21% were related to public safety and welfare issues.
We often meet people in crisis, at the lowest point in their lives. While police officers will always help when we can, we are not always the public service that a vulnerable person needs.
As things are at present, 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 better in partnership across public, private and voluntary sectors, we can improve the support we provide to the most vulnerable in our community and save money by reducing demand across public services. Achieving this requires more joined up working, substantially improving information sharing among agencies and encouraging teams of professionals from different backgrounds to work together to solve the problem rather than just react to it.
The discussion after lunch is about looking forward and meeting the challenges that lie ahead of us. It seems to me that making progress on collaborative working is a both a challenge and an opportunity that policing, and indeed all our public services, cannot afford to miss. I would welcome the Conference’s thoughts on how we can collectively make progress on this critical issue.
I have taken enough of your time this morning, so I will conclude now. 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. Despite the enormous challenges we face, we should be optimistic about what can be achieved when police, partners and the community work together.