George Floyd: lessons from Northern Ireland for policing transformation


ON this the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, many are reflecting on the impact of this terrible event on the future of policing in the US.  But, as SCI's Maggie Beirne writes, there also appears to be a renewed focus on concerns about policing in many countries around the world.  

Some 64 people died at the hands of the police in the US during the course of the George Floyd murder trial alone.  A 16-year old girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, was killed within hours of the verdict being delivered.  The police exist to protect and serve their communities but, in case after case in the US, it seems that they are the very people that communities (especially communities of colour) need protection from. 

The day after the verdict in the Floyd case Social Change Initiative, the Global Citizens Circle and Southern New Hampshire University hosted a global webinar focusing on the hard realities of policing reform. Activists shared lessons from Northern Ireland, South Africa and the USA. (Read more here)

Northern Ireland was able to take advantage of the seminal opportunity for policing change provided by the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998.  The peace negotiations recognised an “opportunity for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland”, given that “NI’s history of deep divisions has made (policing) highly emotive, with great hurt suffered”. A programme of action was required to deliver “a police service that is professional, effective, and efficient; fair and impartial; accountable; representative of the society it polices; and operates within a criminal justice system which conforms with human rights norms”. An international expert Commission (the Patten Commission) was established. It identified good policing practice from around the world and consulted widely with communities across Northern Ireland. The eventual 175 recommendations are particular to Northern Ireland but offer an ‘agenda’ for anyone interested in securing fundamental policing change.

Firstly, how do we build accountable policing? What are the laws/regulations/and political & community oversight mechanisms needed to hold the police to account? As a minimum, those appointed to uphold the law must uphold that law themselves. In Northern Ireland a new policing board was created providing increased democratic and community credibility. This was accompanied by a properly independent system to investigate complaints against the police.  

The Patten Commission distilled best practice internationally to argue that the police need to carry out their functions with the communities served. Drawing on an earlier report from 1964 (with apologies for sexist language used): “The more a policeman is hindered from participating in the community the less he will understand public sentiment, the less well he will exercise his discretion, therefore the more are [people] likely to be irritated by his behaviour, the more will they treat him differently in social contacts, the more isolated will the police become. As their sympathy for members of the public declines further, hostility towards them increases, they become further isolated, and so on.”

Secondly, how do we recruit and retain people who will reflect the many diverse communities served? In Northern Ireland despite the population being roughly a 50/50 split between unionists and nationalists, only 7% of police officers were drawn from the latter community. Accordingly, Patten argued for a major time-limited focus on recruiting more officers from a Catholic/nationalist background by way of a quota system. The percentage of Catholics in the police now stands at 32%. There are arguments for and against quota systems – and care was taken to ensure quality standards - but the Patten report concluded that the police service must reflect the communities it is meant to serve, or it would never get the buy-in needed to operate to its full potential. The very process of engaging with faith, political and other community leaders to encourage broad-based community recruitment, encouraged vital police/community dialogue and real change. 

Needless to say, there is little value in recruiting and training a diverse workforce, if people leave very soon afterwards when they find the organisational culture has not adapted well to them. International research indicates that a minimum of 30% of under-represented groups is needed to affect a cultural change across the whole institution. Successful recruitment strategies need to be followed up by good retention rates, and effective career progression by formerly under-represented groups.

A third category of Patten recommendations related to the question of organisational culture and training. Whilst many reform programmes focus on anti-discriminatory/unconscious bias training, this is not enough. Cultural change of a much more fundamental nature is needed. For example, policing culture can encourage hierarchical, macho or militaristic type attitudes, and rules-bound thinking. Many countries are slow to recruit women to policing because of their smaller physiques, or arbitrary height restrictions are used to exclude women and members of some ethnic communities. Such criteria assume that policing relies routinely on the deployment of brute force. But does it? Surely, in real-life situations, we need police officers who can problem-solve, engage with diverse communities, and be capable of exercising their discretion wisely in unpredictable and unpredicted circumstances? In Northern Ireland steps were taken to remove gender barriers at recruitment and to develop competencies to address the cultural change requirements. Training and organisational norms should also encourage a range of skills aimed at working alongside communities and de-escalating violent situations.

Operational policing change flows from a combination of the changes above. Patten’s brief was to create a police service that was not only fair and impartial, but also “professional, effective and efficient”. The report said “the fundamental purpose of policing should be the protection and vindication of the human rights of all…..people want the police to protect their human rights from infringement by others, and to respect their human rights in the exercise of that duty”. So, Patten recommendations argued that operational planning be routinely measured against human rights practice and principles. For example, the police in Northern Ireland often face very difficult public order situations, but they have found that advance planning about improved communications with communities, transparent decision making, unbiased police operational practices on the ground, and avoiding the inappropriate use of force have all improved their reputation.

There is no suggestion here that the lessons applied to Northern Ireland could be easily transferred to other situations: cultural, racial, political, economic, demographic, social, and historical contexts all vary. The Northern Ireland experience also shows that, even when progress is made, constant vigilance is required to protect those gains. Rollback happens all too easily. However, experience shared with very different jurisdictions around the world has confirmed that the issues of accountability, independent investigation, representativeness, policing with the community and police culture must all be addressed if we want to secure meaningful policing change.    

  • Maggie Beirne has spent her working life in the local and international human rights movement. She was closely involved in the efforts to transform policing in Northern Ireland and was a member of an independent commission reviewing policing in Guyana. She currently chairs the board of the Social Change Initiative.
  • For further information on police reform in Northern Ireland see: Peacebuilding Practice Notes: Lessons from the Peace Process in Northern Ireland