A personal view
by Paul Gosling
It looks as if we will not have too long to wait before policing and justice are devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. This raises the question of how well the PSNI meets the demands of modern policing and whether further reform is needed to make it an efficient and fair police force.
The House of Commons Northern Ireland Committee has just expressed its worries that too much money is going on historic enquiries, at the expense of the efficiency of current policing. But the committee spoke warmly of the chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, and some other senior officers.
Yet the concerns about the PSNI’s ability to respond to current events goes much further than this. Unhappiness reached a peak when it emerged that PSNI officers took over two hours to attend the scene of Emmett Shiels’ murder. In a statement, the PSNI said that officers went immediately to the hospital where Emmett Shiels had been taken and that its information was that it was unsafe for officers to go to Blighs Lane, where the attack took place. That is not satisfying local critics.
The underlying issue is that many of the early gains in public support earned by the PSNI after the discredited RUC was wound-up are now evaporating. While senior PSNI officers have been praised by many, there are increasing doubts about the culture within the PSNI at less senior ranks.
Inevitably, people’s opinion of the PSNI’s culture and efficiency are moulded by personal experience and anecdotes are common complaining that the PSNI is too slow in responding to call-outs. Recently the apartment block in which I live was seriously vandalised at 4 am by men who managed to evade security controls to get into the building. Once in, they set-off fire extinguishers, urinated on the corridors, assaulted residents with the fire extinguisher foam, smashed a glass door, set-off the fire alarm and sprayed foam over anyone who tried to leave the building to get away from the apparent fire. A 999 call was made immediately and the guys were sufficiently intoxicated to remain outside the building – just waiting to be arrested. Except, even in the early hours of a Monday morning, it took over an hour and a quarter for the police to arrive.
A similar lack of urgency is seen with the PSNI failure to respond adequately to the activities of boy racers on the Strand Road on a virtually nightly basis. Burn-ups from the traffic lights and short road races between souped-up cars can be witnessed most nights of the week. Sixty miles an hour races along the Strand Road are obviously dangerous – and not just for the boy racers themselves. I recently saw a boy racer lose control and go into a half spin on a roundabout – almost wiping out two friends in the car in front.
On another occasion – at 8 o’clock at night – a boy racer drove at speed through a red light, just missing my young children and myself as we crossed the road. Then there is the time when a driver did a handbrake turn next to me in a car park. There is also the flagrant breach of noise regulations by many of the drivers, disturbing residents living anywhere near Strand Road (and other parts of the city) overnight. All this takes place almost outside the PSNI station – suggesting the contempt with which the drivers hold the local police.
Taken together – the concerns about the policing of serious crime, extreme anti-social behaviour and car crime – we have come to the point where the PSNI needs to recognise that it must re-evaluate its progress. Obviously the PSNI is a massive improvement over the RUC, but it has not reached its destination of becoming a generally respected and efficient modern police force.
Chris Patten laid down the structures of the PSNI, which provide the basis for progress. But that must not mean that reform is finished. The District Policing Partnerships have not yet proved they can produce the accountability that is needed to make the PSNI more responsive or respected. When the New York police had similar challenges they adopted a system of public meetings and public accountability which they called CompStat. Adopting something similar here might also achieve not just the better public image that New York police gained, but also the dramatic improvements in results that went with it – a 39% fall in serious crime and a 50% drop in murder.
We all know what happens if we don’t have a respected police force in Northern Ireland. The PSNI needs to take note.