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The Stephen Livingstone lecture: Martin O'Brien on policing

Continuing review of Martin O'Brien's speech on 'Human rights and the Agreement: how far have we come?', the 2009 Stephen Livingstone memorial lecture.


Ten years on from the Commission and subsequent ground-breaking  Report – led by former UK government minister Chris Patten – into policing in Northern Ireland, much has changed in both the appearance and workings of the police.

O'Brien – himself a leading lobbyist for change at the time – assesses the progress… and what remains to be done. He contrasts the rhetoric of community policing with, for instance, the surge in the use of 'stop and search' under the Terrorism Act. Finally, he offers some advice to the new PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott:

"Significant change has taken place in the arena of policing.

The police have a new name, a new uniform, another new Chief Constable, more Catholic recruits, more female recruits, and a whole range of new policies and procedures that address human rights concerns.  Northern Ireland has a completely independent police complaints system that many other places can only dream of. 

We have a potentially powerful civic oversight body in the Policing Board and there are a range of local partnerships which are intended to hold the police to account. 

The police have a full time Human Rights Legal Adviser; they have to comply with a disciplinary code which makes frequent reference to human rights; and they are routinely assessed against a human rights monitoring framework.

When I gave my McGrory lecture [in 2005] Sinn Féin had yet to agree to participate in the policing structures.  That they now do is clearly a significant step towards building confidence in the republican community. 

However we cannot expect miracles – in a society where policing was so contentious for so long and where community confidence in the police was so low, it’s going to take some time for trust to be built. 

Progress has been made but much remains to be done. 

In particular it’s worth looking more closely at the priority Patten attached to policing with the community.  The report was clear that community policing, means “the police working in partnership with the community; the community thereby participating in its own policing; and the two working together”

They also highlighted the importance of not seeing partnership solely in terms of the structures they had suggested. They said:

'Partnership is a matter of policing style, but it is also an attitude of mind, both for police officers and the public. It is at least as much a matter of philosophy as it is one of method, and it amounts to a profound shift in police thinking and community thinking'

I fear that we are lost in the structures, in method; that we have followed the letter rather than the spirit and that we have not yet succeeded in seeing partnership as a philosophy or an attitude.

While policing with the community has become the new mantra for the PSNI, it’s clear that partnership is still seen as the police “doing to” rather than “working in partnership with” the community. 

It will be interesting to see what fresh impetus is brought by a new Chief Constable with so many community policing credentials.

Will he, for example, be keen to change the current structures of District Policing Partnerships, many of which stifle rather than encourage meaningful public engagement with the police? 

Will he reconsider powers and practices which work against building community confidence? 

I’m thinking here for example of the 245% increase in the use of stop and search powers under the Terrorism Act last year, the power to detain without charge for 28 days, and proposals to introduce on the spot fines.

If the experience of the past tells us anything, it tells us that abuses of power by the police breed discontent and are entirely at odds with building community confidence. 

It will also be interesting to see whether the new Chief Constable values the various institutions established to hold the police to account or whether he will complain about the level of accountability. 

The previous Chief Constable often, mistakenly in my view, complained that it was too onerous. 

Again, past experience tells us that external scrutiny is key to securing change."

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