During August, I attended an attestation ceremony for the latest PSNI constables in the police college at Garneville. It was my first time both in the college and at the ceremony.
The attestation took place in the assembly hall where the soon to be constables, their families and guests gathered. I found it formal without being overly formal and felt sufficiently at ease to make notes on what I would call the ‘Order of Service’ for the occasion.
After introductions, Professor Duncan Morrow (he was there in his capacity as a member of staff from Ulster University which ratifies the diploma in advance policing) addressed the student officers. The ceremony is called an attestation rather than a graduation though it reminded me of the latter. This was to acknowledge that the qualification was more than academic which the recruits had completed during their 23 weeks in the college.
In his address Duncan referred to three of the Peel principles (from Robert Peel who established the police) including this one:
To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
He also talked about the importance of policing with the community and referred to the ongoing situation in Hong Kong where relations with police have deteriorated.
The attestation in the presence of a Justice of the Peace then followed with each recruit saying these words:
I hereby do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all individuals and their traditions and beliefs: and that while I continue to hold the said office I will to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge all the duties thereof according to law.
Before they attested, the student officers turned around and faced all of us in the hall, the majority of people being members of their own families. As I was sitting very close to the 48 recruits, I was able to observe their facial expressions and to see the smiles, the looks, maybe even some anxiety, the non verbal contact with their families. I struggled to hold back tears as I saw those human interactions. For me this was the most moving part of the whole day. Whilst I would later see, once the formalities had been completed, the constables with their families, many with their parents, siblings and friends, some with their young children, somehow or other this person to person encounter really humanised policing for me in a way I hadn’t seen before.
In her address to the student officers, Professor Anne Connolly, chairperson of the Policing Board after pointing out that policing is a good career went on to remind them that every encounter they had with a member of the public ‘leaves an impression.’ She told them that some people will only have two or three encounters with police officers; she wanted to ensure they would be good encounters. Professor Connolly added ‘it is good to smile’ and gave this advice: ‘don’t lose the run of yourself’. She clearly had no time for arrogant police officers.
There then followed the presentation of the College Academic Prize and the Baton of Honour.
One of the students then spoke on behalf of the student body to thank the college members for the way in which they had trained them over the previous 23 weeks, his speech at times referring to some of the funnier moments which had happened during the training. It clearly wasn’t ‘all work and no play.’
In his address, Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin also had some key messages for the latest police officers into the PSNI including the importance of retaining their humanity. I was very struck by his line ‘a helping hand is better than a heavy hand.’ He then went on to give an example of how two police officers in Derry were attending the scene of a road traffic collision where there was a fatality and a local priest had been called to the scene and during his ministry at the body of the deceased, the two officers joined in prayer. The priest afterwards contacted the local police commander to comment on their compassion and thoughtfulness. This gesture also brought comfort and consolation to the deceased’s family. To this day, one of the officers is still in contact with the family some years after the tragedy. Stephen Martin then spoke about the value of kindness and the importance of compassion and told them: ‘Be proud of your badge’.
After lunch, we then went to the parading ground where the officers paraded to their place in Parade Square waiting to be inspected by T/Deputy Chief Constable. I noted that Stephen Martin took the time to speak to every single officer which whilst it took time, made a very significant point. They were not numbers, they were people and fellow officers in the police family.
After the hats had been thrown in the air, I had time to meet two of the new constables who were due to be posted to my local police station (Woodbourne) in West Belfast.
On reflection, over the last few months, there has been a very negative and depressing narrative gaining momentum including the possibility of our peace process slipping away as well as the uncertainty as we approach the end of October. Despite the dangers of joining the PSNI, here were 48 people who were prepared to do so to make a positive difference in our community. I left the police college that day, thinking about the key messages the new constables had heard at their attestation about the importance of kindness, compassion, humanity, the value of smiling and offering a helping hand. If the rest of us in society would live by these values we would all be in a better place. I also left thinking how easy it is to take our policing service for granted and wondering what more all of us in our various areas of influence could do more to encourage our teenagers to give serious consideration to policing as a career.
Photo from PSNI Instagram
Fr. Martin Magill is the Parish Priest at St Johns Parish, Belfast.