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.