Space to Police

Simon Byrne is the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Today he writes for Slugger about the policing challenges during the COVID 19 pandemic 

2021 is a defining year for policing. The Police Service of Northern Ireland will have been around for two decades. The world around us has changed so much in those 20 years and whilst new opportunities and issues have emerged, the challenges of the past still remain very much in the present for policing.

Policing by its nature is complex, dealing with real time risks and threats as we juggle priorities and strive to deliver the best service we can.
But policing a public health crisis has brought us to a place we didn’t really want to be, creating conflict with some communities and political representatives, at different times.

We have had to interpret and make sense of fast paced law, when normal checks, balances and conventions have been pushed aside in the haste to pass Regulations to protect the public during this unprecedented time. In the context of a death toll which exceeds 2,000 people, we have played our part in good faith, committed to the public health effort.

Sadly, we have not always enjoyed the public support and value that other public service organisations have had during the pandemic. Police officers and staff have remained committed in the face of concerns and criticisms about how we have policed shopping queues, beach gatherings, funerals, protests and commemorations. The risks, constraints and consequences we have faced when making real time decisions have been far from easy. We have taken no pleasure in using enforcement powers which for some have not been used enough, or the human rights impact, which for others we have not balanced correctly. Interpretation of the fine detail has been difficult. Missteps have been made, yet the consequence for policing in Northern Ireland is felt where it matters most – in the support and trust of local communities.

Police Services across the world have wrestled with this dynamic too, as we have witnessed global policing events, such as the death of George Floyd and now, closer to home, the appalling murder of Sarah Everard and disorder in Bristol. These events bring the notion of policing by consent and with the cooperation of all our communities into sharp focus again and again.

So this is a time for reflection in policing. Comments made by Sir Stephen Laws when writing for a leading UK Think Tank are worthy of mention,

“Police officers are being required to strike a balance on the street that would present significant challenges for justices of the Supreme Court, even in the somewhat calmer atmosphere of a courtroom”.

Against this backcloth, we are proud of the role policing has played and continues to play in securing peace, stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. But there is not always consensus about what good, fair and impartial policing looks like, as people choose to interpret events through their own lens, consistent with their own narrative. ‘Two tier’ policing is an easy accusation to make, yet it often falls away when seen through a factual lens, rather than from an emotional one. But perceptions matter and memories are lasting, as we now seek to use this post COVID world, and our 20th anniversary year to be reflective and ambitious about what good policing looks like.

In 2018, the Northern Ireland Policing Board launched a public consultation about this very question. What shone through was a consensus around wanting more community/neighbourhood policing with clear themes of visibility, accessibility and responsiveness.

Delivering this is just what our Senior Team and the caring, dedicated officers and staff of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are committed to. I am optimistic that we can emerge from this pandemic proud of what we have done to protect the public, putting ourselves between the virus and the community, yet humble enough to admit our mistakes and failings, since after all we are only human.

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