The agreement followed three decades of sectarian violence in which thousands of people were killed. The conflict, known as “the Troubles,” was between a historically disadvantaged and alienated Catholic minority community and a politically dominant Protestant majority. It had its roots in hundreds of years of turbulent Irish history. For many in the minority community, the police were seen as an occupying force and instruments of majority oppression — feelings shared by many in black communities throughout the United States. Only 8 percent of police officers in Northern Ireland came from the minority community. Policing became highly politicized, and the police force found itself caught in the middle. Over 300 police officers were killed during the Troubles.
When we started our work on policing in Northern Ireland, it was the most contentious issue in Northern Ireland politics, and the parties to the peace agreement had sensibly referred it to our independent commission. One side called for disbanding the police, while the other argued strongly to keep the security apparatus in place. Our answer was to ask the people what kind of policing they wanted. We then created the framework to deliver it. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is a transformed organization now, professional and accountable, with broad cross-community support.
Fundamental policing reform requires a thorough consultative process involving everyone with a stake in the community. It cannot be achieved by top-down edicts or legislation. There are things the federal government can do to support public safety, but states and cities should be the architects of their own policing arrangements.
In Northern Ireland we adopted a process that allowed everyone to have a voice. We invited written submissions from the public and all interested organizations — and received thousands. We had hundreds of meetings, not only with politicians, officials, police, academics, unions, business representatives and NGOs, but also with private individuals, victims and families — including loved ones of those killed by police and those of police officers lost in the line of duty (“no one has the monopoly on grief,” we were often told). We had numerous town hall meetings, organized and chaired by objective, local community leaders. We were able to get beyond divisive, unhelpful and political rhetoric so that everyone had an opportunity to be heard.
Within our commission there were diverse perspectives as well, with only two out of eight members having police experience. We listened carefully to the people and to one another. Our common purpose was simple: to go wherever the truth took us and to get it right. Our commitment to authentic community engagement produced invaluable results. Our findings and recommendations were a direct reflection of the community’s thoughtful input and feedback.
Northern Ireland remains a divided society in many respects, and the police still have a difficult task. But where armored cars and long guns were once commonplace, policing now is rooted in the community and based on strong partnerships. The police themselves are much more representative of the population, and the service has a significantly larger non-police component than in the past.
U.S. police officials often look to other departments nationwide for ideas and best practices, but we rarely look to other countries. We should. The turbulent relationship between the police and the minority community in Northern Ireland in 1998 bears similarities with the challenges facing many U.S. jurisdictions today. The Northern Ireland example provides us with a process that could certainly work here, whereby communities can get the policing they design and police can get the community buy-in they need.
Two years ago we worked on another policing reform in Ireland, this time in the republic. The structure of that commission, and our process, were similar to the one in Northern Ireland. In Ireland, as in the United States, police officers spend as much as 80 percent of their time on social problems other than crime prevention or response. They deal with the most vulnerable members of society: children and elderly people at risk, the homeless, people in mental health crises, and those with addiction.
As a society, we tend to think of police as “crime fighters,” and some police no doubt would like to be seen in that light. But policing is a social service. In our comprehensive report from the Republic of Ireland, published in 2018, we called for a redefinition of policing along these lines.
The time is ripe now for a new beginning for policing. In most communities across the United States, this is long overdue. Radical change is needed now, and the culture of policing should be one of continuous improvement and innovation, responsive to the evolving needs and expectations of our ever-changing society.
We are not alone in facing the challenge of policing in divided societies, or dealing with the consequences of centuries-old miscarriages of history. If Northern Ireland can agree a way forward on policing, so can we.