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On culture shock, confidence, and community

It’s seen as one of the most contentious issues of the past 50 years in Northern Ireland.  But since 2001, policing there has been revolutionized.  Today, a very different public perception, as an international leader in thinking about policing and community relationships emerges.

Professor Ruth Fee is Head of School at the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University.  During her visit to UofGH, she presented her most recent research on this revolution, and shared with us the many things we could learn from our partners abroad.

Professor Ruth Fee

In Conversation with Professor Ruth Fee, Ulster University

Policing was seen as an essential part of the peace process in Northern Ireland.  How would you describe the significant shift that’s taken place since 2001?

Today’s Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) looks nothing like the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did back before 2001.  The entire policing landscape has dramatically changed.

The RUC was viewed as a partisan force.  You had a terrorist landscape, you had army policing alongside the police, you had officers killed on duty, you had a culture of fear.  People saw policing as oppressive. Where police were almost like a military organization – they weren’t working with communities, they were working against.  As a force, as opposed to as a service that citizens could avail of.  But that was only half the story.

In order to change the police service, there had to be change within communities as well.  First and foremost, all communities had to recognize the legitimacy of the police.  That was the ultimate change.  To go from a perceived military force to a police service that was there to work with communities.  It was very important to change that mindset.

How did that look?

It certainly wasn’t just a case of rebranding.  It was root and branch.  There was a massive review of policing in 1999, called the Patten Review.  175 recommendations came out of it.  And each and every one of those recommendations was seen through.  From senior command to the way in which operational duties were carried out.  From training and delivery – everything changed.  The uniforms were different.  The look, the feel, the identity, the symbolism.  Everything.  It was a total culture change.

It went from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  So there was a service focus that everyone could buy into.

A service focus – a deliberate shift toward an essential element of community policing.

Yes.  It’s getting back to basics and never forgetting the principles of policing.  And these principles are very much focused on service delivery, on serving community.  Not as a reactive force, there only to maintain public order.  We had to move back to basics.  And it came down to trust, and to confidence.

Within the Northern Irish environment, we have no fewer than 26 police and community safety partnerships.  For such a small region.  And each of those have elected representatives from the community who sit with police, at a local level, to talk about the delivery of service.  What’s wrong in the area?  What needs to be improved?  How are the police actually working with communities?

And that’s all then fed up to the policing board.  Alongside the PSNI changing, there were also governing bodies produced to ensure policing was transparent, fair, and accountable.  The Policing Board for Northern Ireland was established as an independent public body.  An independent police complaints service now looks at complaints made by the public about the police.  It’s not internal affairs – it’s a completely independent, external body.  The oversight has been significant.

It’s been about 14 years since this major shift… how are things viewed today?

We’ve found confidence is improving for policing as a whole in Northern Ireland.  This, in itself, marks a shift in terms of measurement of police performance.  From public satisfaction, rather than metrics relating to crime and detection. 

But confidence is a classic ‘wicked issue’.  A complicated concept to get to grips with, not least because it’s based upon tricky psychological concepts, perceptions, opinions, expectations and judgments.

The first of the ‘official’ measures is the Department of Justice’s survey – a representative, personal interview survey centred on perceptions of crime, with about 4,000 people from across the country.  Another official survey of confidence came from the policing board.

What we found was that public confidence in the PSNI has steadily increased since the organization was formed in 2001.  85% thought the police provide an ordinary day-to-day service for all the people in Northern Ireland.  Almost 80% believed that the police treat Catholics and Protestants equally in Northern Ireland as a whole.  Before, if you got 50%, you were doing well.

Add to this the fact that there’s support by ALL elected parties for rule of law and policing – that’s a massive step forward.

Ulster University has also played a significant part in this change.  In the revolutionizing of policing, what role can a university play?

Like the University of Guelph-Humber, Ulster University has always been a university that’s about impact.  It’s not just learning for the sake of learning. 

We have a long history of working with the police service, but we’ve always been there as a neutral space.  We’re not there to always support them, or always criticize them, but again, to provide that neutral space for an honest conversation about the realities of policing and how things can be done better.  A lot of those difficult conversations between communities and PSNI have actually been facilitated by members of our staff.

We also do a lot of research associated with policing, in terms of confidence, in terms of policing oversight and governance – and we can be there as critical friends.

It’s only recently that we’ve also started working with the intelligence branch of PSNI.  They’ve traditionally not worked with external organizations before, but they see the benefit of working with a higher education institution to professionalize their staff, to get their staff thinking beyond the traditional training of policy and process. 

This benefits the individuals who are taking the program, but also benefits police services and the wider society as a result.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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