In no uncertain terms, the publication of the South Armagh Policing Review (SAPR) represents a watershed moment in the recent history of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Through some extraordinary detail not normally in the public domain, the SAPR details a bleak, and in some cases, damning account of the policing experience for people living in the South Armagh area.
Since the PSNI came into being back in 2001, successive Chief Constables have laid claim to their own ‘brand’ and models of community-oriented policing. Or in the words of recommendation 44 of the Independent Commission for Policing in Northern Ireland (The Patten Report) policing with the community – which ‘should be the core function of the police service and the core function of every police station’ [para. 7.9]. While there have been numerous attempts to reinvent and recycle the principles of policing with the community over the years, as the SAPR shows, some of the most well-funded and overseen policing in western Europe has failed to deliver on that for communities in South Armagh, even in the post-2007 era.
Across its 170 pages and 50 recommendations, a key thread of the long-awaited report is the disconnect between PSNI and the local community, along with civic networks. Through a mixture of issues related to organisational culture, working conditions, security focus and legacy, the photograph of the Chief Constable on Christmas Day of 2019 – which sparked the SAPR – typifies a long history problematic policing in the area. Of particular note in the review, the default militaristic and security approaches underpinning policing have negatively impacted on community trust, relations and legitimacy in the PSNI.
However, while the facts of policing realities for South Armagh communities are set out in the review, it does not mean the situation has gone un-noticed. Groups in the community sector, and particularly CRJI, have been pivotal in shoring up deficits in policing for the South Armagh community over many years. From forging relations with local police officers through to providing forums for communities to air policing and crime frustrations, CRJI have been a critical piece of the jigsaw, holding their own community safety line for local populations. Importantly, the SAPR details a crisis of legitimacy in PSNI – but not a rejection of policing. CRJI have always been on record about the need for communities to cooperate with police and the criminal justice system more broadly. The current review in many regard, simply points out where some of the practical, organisation fault-lines for PSNI exist.
It is interesting that recommendation 32 of the SAPR focuses on a need for PSNI to conduct a community stakeholder analysis of local community organisations and networks in the area. But for many years CRJI have always been active, at the heart of local community infrastructure and organising around policing and community safety matters – taking up the slack around policing noted in the review. And in fact, CRJI have been key to the outcomes of the SAPR, acting as a stepping stone into not just community sentiment, but the context and reality of everyday policing experiences in South Armagh, as detailed in the Appendices of the report.
In some respects, the sort of work undertaken by CRJI in South Armagh and beyond mirrors the sentiment of a former Patten Report Commissioners, Clifford Shearing. On the one hand, he said the police reform process was about changes to the ‘systems’ of policing in North, such as names, badges, symbols and training. But on the other hand, it was also about seeing policing in its widest sense beyond just the police organisation. Or in other terms, policing more broadly conceived – touching on preventative, public health and social justice issues. As may be observed in the SAPR, the people of South Armagh have seen little by the way of change for either of these ‘systems’ of policing change or progressive policing considerations.
In the words of CRJI’s Ewan Morgan, Project Co-ordinator & Newry/Armagh Development Worker, the review is also a template for implementing modern, community-based policing in the area. The community desire to support an effective policing service is in place; CRJI is positioned to help communities on that journey, as it has always been. But it is now up to the PSNI and related bodies to deliver. Importantly, the report gives hope to the shape of that change going forward, particularly around the use of Independent Advisory Groups (IAGs), which, if properly constituted, will give teeth to the meaning and direction of travel for the modernisation of policing in the area.
It is also important to state that any ‘cherry picking’ of the review should be resisted, particularly where isolated recommendations are picked out to suit the political expediency of those with no working or lived experience of policing in South Armagh. The review and its recommendations must be seen as a whole ‘package’ derived from, and based upon, the views of communities and stakeholders in the area. To dispute certain recommendations and not others is to impose, rather than engage on policing change best suited to local populations. CRJI welcome the recommendations related to cross-border policing initiatives, not least that cross-border crime impacts and affects communities in the area. It would be criminologically illiterate to argue that the recommendations focused on reinforcing and improving approaches to the policing of borderless crime are anything other than the operational reality faced by police and communities on both sides of the border. So too it must be acknowledged as part of change, police officer safety will be key to how policing is delivered in the area. That is not in dispute. But security issues cannot be tackled without the cooperation of communities in the first place. It is precisely the unchecked prioritisation of security over community as identified, which necessitated the SAPR in the first place.
The SAPR also brings into sharp relief a need to examine wider policing arrangements and structures for the area. While the Policing and Community Safety Partnership (PCSP) structure has been in place for a number of years, considering policing as a ‘whole’ will be key to aligning community demands with operational delivery around local matters – a key element of community-oriented policing. But at the same time, CRJI have been a crucial component of the policing fora for many years in South Armagh and beyond. So it must be recognised that CRJI have been and will remain a key stakeholder for positive policing change in South Armagh – precisely because our work is at the heart of community matters. It is vital to remember that communities are much more than collections of individuals. They are shaped and formed by their community networks, organisations and the social capital which underpin them. Only through understanding that can PSNI begin to truly conceive and deliver on engaged policing approaches.
Most significantly, publication of the SAPR marks the end of security-focused policing, an era where fortification and security has dominated engagement and relations; while actively working against the delivery of policing with the community in line with the spirit of the Patten reform process. Reading between the lines of the review, it also signals an attempt at cultural change by PSNI for South Armagh policing. Notwithstanding the need to remove Crossmaglen PSNI station as a relic of the past, important changes to personnel and perspectives for policing will also be introduced to replace those identified as long past their operational ‘sell-by’ date.
In short, CRJI welcomes the next steps around policing in the area and, while humbled to play our part in the policing journey so far in South Armagh, are ready to assist in a new era where communities are placed at the centre of policing decisions as part of the engaged, neighbourhood policing with PSNI so badly needed.
Community Restorative Justice Ireland