PSNI in 2016: Some hard choices we now need to make?

The Patten Report of 1999 famously led to the formation of the PSNI through a total of 175 recommendations covering a string of areas from human rights and oversight to – of course – the very name, size and composition of the organisation.

With an Oversight Commissioner, Police Ombudsman, new District Policing Partnerships and a central Policing Board (and their associated costs) soon in place, Hugh Orde would often remark that his force had become the most accountable policing body in the world.

Would the 20 year anniversary provided by 2019, then, be a perfect point in time for a major review to establish if the era of ultra-accountability, modern management and slick branding has also brought any negative impact to the culture, efficiency and public image of the organisation?

The report could establish if, alongside obviously welcome aspects such as 50/50 recruitment, to some degree an organisation now focussed on process and servicing external oversight has been created but at the cost of morale, leadership and identity?

For my part, a previous working life meant exposure to how the PSNI operates at HQ-type level, where mainly civilians (i.e., non-police officers), rule the roost. I have never been a police officer and the views below will, absolutely, be the single view of one person from a single point of experience. It is far from an academic approach and does not include significant knowledge of how policing is delivered locally. It is, however, a view rarely heard.

In return? For many in Northern Ireland, the very mention of PSNI will cause an instant retreat to a set position based on politics or experience, good or bad. This causes a ‘prism’ in our view of the police and it is one some in politics have been happy to use to their advantage when it suits.

I only ask that we firstly recognise the courage, skill and compassion of police officers – from dealing with road deaths to risking riot injuries – and that we suspend our ‘prism’ for a few short minutes.


Looking at the broad issue of how policing is delivered in 2016, as opposed to headline incidents or political sore-points, three questions arise:-

– Political or independent? It is an often-repeated quip that ‘it is only political policing when it happens to your side’. An irony is at play when it is considered that we have moved from early Sinn Fein complaints of political policing to police now reporting to MLAs through the Policing Board, to the appointment of senior officers by a panel including political members and, locally, to political and community spokespeople taking part in local Policing and Community Safety Partnerships.

As can be seen in media releases from MLAs and Councillors, which will often boast that they will now take an issue directly to the local commander or have spoken directly to the commander already, the lines of communication at that level are fairly constant.

Closer to HQ, every contact above a simple phone call will, though, produce its own time-demands and bureaucracy: meetings will set more targets, processes are invented to measure countless areas of work (see below) and reports will have to be produced.

A leaked report earlier in the life of the PSNI admitted high levels of bureaucracy. A nuance missed out then, and now, is that demands from external organisations must be the source of much of the red tape demanded of police.

Bearing in mind the often-criticised standard of leadership from MLAs in society, and their often questionable ability to take a broad view beyond their own community, at what point do we take stock of the modern definition of intentional political policing, including the workload this causes for police, to ensure we are on the right path?

– Professional or inspirational?  Many of us will remember policing figures with character, and even presence as household names, such as natural leaders like Hugh Orde, Duncan McCausland and Judith Gillespie. In more recent times, some leaders with passion, talent and personality remain (largely at local management level).

However, a modern culture of professionalism can also mean a culture of producing reports and business cases rather than decision-making, a reliance on process and measurement over instinct and talent and a habit of systems such as paper-based risk management in place of ability and personality in leadership.

It is difficult to imagine a sleeves-rolled-up senior officer of the earlier PSNI days needing a risk management system and multiple meetings to know the risks in their area and the people in it, thanks to the instinct and flair of the officer. Or a natural leader who has a formal process for ‘well being’ as opposed to always using natural empathy and leadership to look out for the health of his/ her team.

A personal view? A modern reliance on competency-based interviewing (full disclosure – I am notably bad at these as a candidate) can see those best suited to process and analysis progressing through the organisation regardless of ability to lead, manage, motivate, empathise or communicate.

A trend, meanwhile, for slick branding – from mail-drops to hashtags and signage with slogans and mission statements (these change with each Chief Constable: the PSNI currently has a ‘Mission Triangle’) – may well leave the public as cold as the morale-hit officers within the organisation.

Do we need to know, then, what effect modern styles of management have had on the culture and esprit de corps within police and civilian staff in Northern Ireland, alongside any reduction of natural leadership and at what impact to the public?

– Question first or support first? A staple since 2001 for some media outlets, more recently for flag protest social media accounts and, on opportune occasions, some MLAs, has been the nitpicking assumption that police have handled every situation – often caused by failure of political leadership – wrongly unless proven otherwise.

Officers will be either too many or too few in number, either heavy-handed or not heavy-handed enough with the other ‘side’, either unwelcome by or absent and accused of failing to protect the same group, either too heavily-armoured or failing to protect officers.

Culturally, questioning every operational decision made by police as automatically being wrong has become a default and engrained position and it is one we have seen encouraged in the public by various political circles. NB a reduction in complaints of 10% has been recorded, with 52% investigated by PONI and 25% found actionable – approx 750 complaints for 6,872 officers.

Meanwhile, as touched on previously more than once, phone-in shows will encourage blame culture and routinely question every policing decision in mock-ignorance that privacy, protecting investigations/ information and legality will prevent an organisation from saying all but very little (or from returning to the issue when an allegation is found to be untrue and disappears from the airwaves unchecked).

Is specific research needed to show the effect and cause of this environment? Constant second-guessing and questioning by, at times, opportunistic political representatives may feel healthy, but up to what point and with what result to the service we receive?


Ultimately; we say we want police to be hugely accountable but we don’t want money for officers on the beat to be wasted, we condemn police red tape yet create an industry of organisations to create targets and meetings to be serviced, we don’t want political policing yet hand the reigns over to the same MLAs we often deride, and we want to be involved in every decision but demand an instant firm hand when it suits our ‘side’.

At what point, then, do we create a PSNI overly-burdened with servicing its external oversight commitments, managed professionally in the cold style of a management consultancy devoted to setting and measuring targets and processes where talent and leadership is also vitally needed?

Our instinct will often say we want MLA-involvement, accountability, professional image and media/ community questioning of every decision to be turned up to 11.

But stepping outside that prism: is this always how – when a family member has been injured or we’ve been the victim of a crime – we would want our police to be forced to spend their time, effort and money?

Most of all, with the added pressure of shrinking funds, staffing and morale, do we need to consider these questions or even bring someone like Chris Patten back to Northern Ireland – almost 20 years after his first report – to check we have the balance right?

My own view? A post-post-Patten review to show us not what we have thankfully gained but how much we might have lost elsewhere along the way would seem perfectly timed and for the benefit of us all.


  • Redbrae

    There is no accountability in the PSNI. I have just witnessed 3 months of flawed policy and community abuse by the PSNI at Woodburn forest (not as an environmentalist but as a local resident). Their actions have been shameful and a disgrace to the uniform. I never would have believed they could act in such an arrogant and aggressive manner – over riding all human rights without explanation or engagement.

  • chrisjones2

    Isn’t it shocking. I mean how dare they uphold the law while a self selected self opinionated bunch of local loons and blow ins attempted to stop a business going about its totally lawful work! Truly shackin!

  • I’ve been to the Stop the Drill site – I only met local people from every walk of life. No loons though!

  • I’m a vocal supporter of the campaign and the only one very general thing I would say about policing protests is that there is often a misunderstanding about what the police are legally required to do: politicians draw up the laws, police follow that through.

    If police were out of line then the Ombudsman will uphold and action a complaint/s.

    Glad to see the drilling has stopped. Congrats and thanks.

  • Redbrae

    Reading chrisjones2 prior posts, I think he probably has a different definition of “loon” than most normal people. Anyone who was actually there knows what happened and it will be dealt with by the courts since the accountability was lacking on the ground by PSNI. Even a number of PSNI officers did not back what happened and therefore chrisjones2 has no idea what he is talking about or the definition of law and boundaries of policing.

  • doopa

    Great article – however you seem to be pulling your punches with regard to specific complaints about what we might have lost along the way?
    The losses appear very vague almost nebulous whereas the gains have been demonstrable. I feel that these vague assertions are unfounded particularly when there is evidence you could point to regarding morale – long term sick, turnover etc. With regard to identity is 50/50 recruitment incompatable with identity? Or do we just need time for a new identity to be forged? You don’t for example comment on whether the loss of the RUC’s identity was a good or bad thing?
    The biggest step (IMO) the PSNI made is that it is now a police force that is accepted by the majority of the people in NI.

  • On the fence!

    Once any organisation starts to recruit it’s staff on any basis other than strictly “best person for the job”, it’s inevitable that the standard of product or service that it offers will be diminished.

    PSNI is no different.

  • I disagree. I have never seen any evidence that 50/50 recruitment has had anything but positive effects.

    We’ll agree to disagree.

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    The days of robust immediate policing are probably over. The checks and balances (including the health & safety culture within the police itself) has instilled a culture that is more reflective, prone to inaction and negotiation, rather than dynamic proactive solutions.

    It remains to be seen if this is a good or a bad thing overall. However one byproduct is a concern about a perception growing of ‘the police do nothing’ when bystanders expect them to ‘wade in’. A diet of do-or-die cops on TV and films leads uninformed members of the public to knee-jerk criticism of the police (a divided society simply enhances this tendency – a ‘get stuck into themuns’ paradigm is very evident).

    The contemporary police culture naturally favours a more slow-time behind a desk style of leadership, and of course promotion systems favour this type of ‘leader’. Someone who is more manager than leader. This business model would be fine if the PSNI were making widgets. Unfortunately in the world they inhabit on the street ‘managers’ don’t always cut it.

    But the old-style effective street cop, “thief-takers” in the police vernacular, aren’t coming back.

    The PSNI does not stand alone in this. Policing style has changed across the UK. The new order is here to stay.

    As for bringing Patten back, why bother? Patten was no policing expert and the bulk of his recommendations were a direct lift from a change policy paper produced by the RUC under Sir Ronnie Flanaghan. (The exceptions being the headline name-change etc). These changes would have been enacted in the developing policing environment without Patten. Patten was at the end of the day a political exercise.

    The primary reason that Ronnie Flanaghan went on to be HMIC was because the changes he had developed along with his senior officers in the RUC were attractive to the Government who wished them introduced across the UK, as indeed was what happened.

  • On the fence!

    Fair enough.

    Just to clarify, I’m not saying we didn’t need the 50/50 policy. Just stating that I consider that a drop in standards (hopefully temporarily!) was an inevitable consequence.

  • Many thanks.

    To clarify – acceptance by the majority of people in NI and 50/50 recruitment are very much positives and I attach no ‘cons’ or side-effects to these taking place whatsoever.

    I may have been fairly subtle in my reference to some negatives re modern policing: a culture of process over decision-making, a cold management style which stifles talented leadership and (in my humble view) too much political involvement/ political undermining.

    As someone who has come into contact work-wise with PSNI in the past it would be unprofessional to give examples but my thoughts are in the article in a general sense instead.

  • Excellent and fascinating points – appreciated.

    The reference to Patten was as much a way of asking if we need to stop and take a hard look at policing culture. Your point that it is too late is very well made.

    Absolutely agree that there’s a great misunderstanding within the public about what the police can and cannot reasonably do these days.

  • I don’t think maths would support your point – the PSNI receive thousands of applications when they advertise.

    If 20% describe themselves as Catholic and a smaller ‘pool’ is created for that half of the recruitment we are still talking about the very best candidates from a vast number. (

    Happy to disagree, just don’t think it makes sense.

  • On the fence!

    I’ve never heard any disputing from either side (or indeed senior PSNI staff) of the fact that the bar had to be lowered initially to hit the necessary recruitment targets. Nor is it difficult to see why this would have to be the case for the very reasons which you mention.

    There is then another debate altogether about whether this SHOULD have been done or not,……….but I’ll stay “on the fence” on that one! 🙂

  • Ryan A

    Lawful? That’s an interesting analysis considering this was facilitated by public sector incompetence on a shocking scale, but that’s for another thread and potentially a spotlight investigation as to how such a controversial planning application just breezed through.
    I agree it was a case of NIMBYism but if it was your own backyard you’d change your tune.

    Compared to how I’ve seen flag protests managed just a few years ago, this was heavy handed considering we had balloons blocking arterial routes back then.

  • doopa

    I guess what I’m looking for (perhaps ironically) is a measure the impact of these negatives? If there is a culture of process over decision making – how would this manifest itself on the ground? To my mind if a negative can’t be measured in terms of impact on delivery of service then what’s the point in complaining about it? I’d argue the culture of process has come into policing because they couldn’t (and probably still can’t) be trusted. All of this process stuff is required to build trust and importantly demonstrate it.
    On the other hand – I would tend to agree about the political involvement – without needing to see numbers on that. The Ombusman and DPP are too open to abuse from ‘community leaders’ and have been comprised by having people of questionable standing involved.

  • Understood. My angle is that I’m making the observation of the negatives and asking if work needs done to do the measuring. I’m outside the organisation and speaking with discretion so I’m not going to be the one to give examples or provide figures.

    Saying that, a culture of ‘if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist’ within the police has created bureaucracy and stifled decision-making/ talent in some areas. Sometimes a good decision is a good decision because it is a good decision and because someone with years of experience says so (not referring to myself here), also because it is the right thing to do. You can either make the decision and move on or have meetings to fret about how it fits into multiple strategies etc then turn it into a big, slow cumbersome project. Sometimes the scope is needed to allow people to do the former or little gets done at all. Just my experience.

    A culture of lots and lots of process also gives bad managers plenty to hide behind without doing much else.

    I’m just asking if it needs to be looked at, based on experience, rather than providing evidence.

    Also understood re process – my question is wether it comes at a cost re culture and replacing natural leadership. It is easy to have a process for everything, it is much harder to let true leadership grow.

    Edit: Just been that told research by the Police Federation and PSNI themselves (a recent questionnaire) would support that the three cultural issues identified are a concern.

  • murdockp

    A good start would be not to recruit the police officers who knowingly cheated in thier entrance exams as this is a classic example of the culture of collusion that happens time and time again in police forces worldwide.
    There should be no concessions despite the large numbers of recruits involved, start as you mean to go on.
    These are the sort of actions the public needs to see.

  • chrisjones2

    The couirts dont seem to have agreed

  • chrisjones2

    Yes the courts will decide. Pray tell are you one of the ones who were arrested?

    Sadly I cannot use your posting history to label you as you dont have one.Three posts all on this one issues do not a history make. You really should get out more

  • chrisjones2

    Fracking done with proper controls has been shown to be safe.

    Even then there was no fracking on this site it was a straight oil well but local people were lied to to try and scare them

  • chrisjones2

    You mean that the Department and the Courts disagreed with you? Shucks! How terrible

  • chrisjones2

    …or perhaps start with staff at the Training Centre who set the same exams for every course. Are they under investigation for negligence?

  • chrisjones2

    Why? Are you suggesting that Catholics make worse police officers?

  • Did you see the site with your own eyes Chris? I did – it is insanely close to the reservoir.

    I’ll let you the rest of you debate the technicalities but here’s my view: Stormont does not function well enough yet for me to trust the word of officialdom that drilling next door to our water is safe and would be monitored properly by those free of big business influence.

    I had no trust in the whole situation and did not want the drilling directly beside my water. Simple as that – the finer details are between yourselves.

  • Redbrae

    No, never arrested but an eye witness to the PSNI assaults

  • Not to be difficult and, again, I’m a supporter of the campaign – but I saw a Stop The Drill video on FB of an arrest described as an assault but what I would have said was a legal arrest.

    In general terms, being manhandled into a vehicle by police because you resisted arrest in not the same as assault but – again – I don’t know the specifics and am hesitant to take a solid view on anything based on one short video.

  • chrisjones2

    I did see it and looked on Google earth. Its fine by me.

    If you dont trust Stormont that is a matter for you but its the Government we have., Anyione has a right to protest lawfully but not break the law

  • chrisjones2

    Is that the one who was given repeated chances to go away but wouldn’t. He was then arrested by police then fought not to go in the van? He appeared drunk or stoned?

  • chrisjones2

    Well it will have its day in court

  • On the fence!

    Of-course not, there are good police officers and not so good. In my experience it seems more determined by the work ethic of the person involved, can’t say that I’ve ever seen any evidence of it following religious lines.

    I just refer you again to my first post and last reply.

  • Ryan A

    Last time I checked no-one has went in front of a judge on this, other than MEA Council who did what they were ordered and reviewed the waste management plan. Following the resumption of the original legal action, Infrastrata had completed their work and have now vanished. Hopefully you’ll be graced with their presence in your locale for a spell.

  • Ryan A

    Yeah, and there was no proper control on this site. I’ve also been informed there have been reports of sink holes opening close by the site – Carrickfergus hosts some of the biggest salt mines in Europe.

    Drilling near salt mines. What could possibly go wrong?

  • doopa

    Any references for ‘fracking been shown to be safe?’

    Was it a straight oil well? Why did they apply for a fracking license then?

  • Thomas Barber

    The reluctance of the PSNI to proactively pursue those former colleagues in the RUC who colluded in the murders of hundreds upon hundreds of innocent people who they swore and were paid to protect in contrast to their eagerness to pursue every avenue open to them in investigating and bringing to justice those former paramilitaries who obviously weren’t State agents prove the PSNI the are not the most accountable policing body in the world but rather a tool of the establishment to cover up their nefarious activities in the past conflict. Almost on a daily basis we are being drip fed shocking evidence of a culture of collusion between the RUC and paramilitaries in hundreds and hundreds of murders and yet not one former RUC officer has been forced to explain their actions in a court of law.

  • chrisjones2

    So why has the ombudsman not charged anyone? After all he claims to have the proof

    Actually that is not quite true. I believe some Detectives were charged with falsifying evidence in old cases in Derry but were freed when it was revealed that the Ombudsman has withheld evidence that showed they were innocent ie they were fitted up

  • Thomas Barber

    In your haste to defend those RUC officers who colluded in murder did you even check if the Police Ombudsman can in fact charge an officer with an offense.

    Yes theres this old case from Derry too, I wonder did those RUC officers you are talking about get the same comfort letters these ones got.