I thank the Chairman. It is a pleasure to be here.
Community policing is a little like the word "love". It is to be found in most places, a slightly overused phrase which can mean different things to different people. I can only talk about my experience of being a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board for the past two years and the experience I have had in dealing with police forces throughout the world. I was in America last week where I spent time with the police forces in Washington and Boston.
I should start with a Kerry phrase in that having read the Bill, I would not start from here if the aim is to go where I think it should be going. Community policing is not achievable unless there is oversight which cannot be provided for by a police service in its own right. There is a great danger that it will remain a concept unless it is driven into the culture of the police service that will implement it.
As a Donegal man who had much contact when growing up with people who came from this culture and as someone who has nephews and nieces who serve with the Garda Síochána, I am aware of the advantages with which this country starts. It has the privilege and gift of a police service that is deeply embedded within the community. This generation of politicians and gardaí would do a great disservice to the nation if that were ever lost.
The danger is not so much that policing is changing but that the community is changing. Community policing involves two words: "community" and "policing". Both are changing rapidly but the one that is changing fastest of all is community. In some ways it is more difficult to define and describe what is a community. A small group of people living in harmony in a neighbourhood is less easily identified. The actual mechanisms of what that means are becoming more difficult to define for all kinds of reasons. First, the authority structures in place 20 or 30 years ago are either gone or going. Second, people's identification with the local area is less strong. I do not wish to bore the joint committee with all of this.
Policing in the community is the subject of one of the most important debates taking place at an international level. It is taking place in America, New Zealand, Canada, England and the North of Ireland. I welcome the fact that it is now taking place here. Community policing or policing with the community, as it is sometimes known, generally means one and the same thing, except that the connotations can sometimes be slightly different.
In some cases the police will establish a dedicated group within the service to act as community police officers. These are sometimes referred to as community beat officers who are attached to a particular locality and that is their specific job. That is one definition of "community policing". The near universal experience is that it is wonderful, in principle, but does not work. What happens is that the officers concerned are the first to be pulled out if there is a shortage of personnel or a crisis and given other tasks.
The second aspect is that culturally they are seen to be less effective as police officers. They lose part of their status because they are seen as the soft side of policing rather than the effective side. Another aspect is that everybody adopts the words and principles but they discover ten years later that not all that much has happened. That has been the experience in many places around the world.
One does not have to reinvent the wheel. The Patten report was one of the finest ever written on policing from a pragmatic and practical point of view. It studied policing throughout the world, including here. It took the best of what had emerged in the debate in various places and set out a series of 175 recommendations, many of which concerned community policing.
In Northern Ireland we have achieved most of the recommendations but if one were to ask me if we have community policing, I would say we have yet to achieve it. That is where we want to go. Two factors are stopping us, the first of which is that politics does not help the situation and makes matters difficult, while the second is that the core of the cultural change needed in policing is the most difficult to achieve. However, we are lucky and in many ways blessed that we had two commissioners from this island, two from America and others from elsewhere who were familiar with this material and gathered much of it. We are also lucky in having leaders who have come close in trying to guide us through some of this material. In the third place we are lucky in at least having a strategy.
Two years ago the police in Northern Ireland drew up a document entitled Policing the Community in Northern Ireland, and I would recommend it to the committee. It contains all that is needed within this area. If members of the committee would like copies, they can be made available. It is practical and down to earth, and goes through the principles, succinctly. It also emphasises, somewhere in the middle, that what is called for is a cultural change, that must go right across policing. Such change realises, in Ronnie Flanagan's words, that "policing is too big to be left to the police themselves". If the community is not formally engaged with, and there is no great participation within the community, and the community does not have an ownership stake in policing, there is a danger that within the shifting sands of present-day democracy that is redefining itself and finding its own mechanisms, there will be a separation between the police and the majority of citizens.
Having looked at the Bill and had discussions with the Minister, I have two difficulties. One is that there is no police authority between the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the appointment of the Commissioner and senior Garda officers. The Conroy report of 1968, with which I am sure the committee is familiar, pointed out that this was not good for policing. Our experience in Northern Ireland is that having a political but also independent group of people acting rationally together as regards those senior appointments creates a distance between government and the police — and this is something the police become extremely comfortable with after a period.
The second point is that this type of organisation creates a slight distance from government as well as from fashion — from the various forces that exist at any particular time — to actually drive matters through to the point where it may be seen that change has become effective rather than just cosmetic.
We have all suffered from a terrible centralism, where power is centralised, hierarchical and mostly male. No organisations in the world are more centralist, hierarchical and male than police services. This has only begun to change within recent years through ways and mechanisms being found to cut through that. Above all, they remain centralist, where most decisions are taken at the top or at the centre. They are predominantly male because women still only comprise a small part of policing. The third point is that they seldom devolve power if they can avoid it.
They are incredibly hierarchical. This came from an old military tradition which stipulated that unless there were men and women on the ground who obeyed commands, one risked putting other people in difficult situations. That was true 100 years ago, but it is not true today. There are different forms of leadership and different ways of responding today. Unless power is devolved within the police structures and through civilian involvement and engagement as well as through oversight of policing, then the police will remain centralist and very distant from what is hopefully to be achieved, namely, the community. Therefore mechanisms must be found to do that.
One of the difficulties, from my reading of the Bill, is that the Garda will sit on all the overseeing committees. Why is that? The fact that oversight has been devolved to local authorities, which was not the original proposal, is an advancement. That is an improvement, but I cannot understand why the Garda will sit on the committees with the same power, authority and involvement as the local citizen or whatever political or civilian oversight is established. This means that cosy little cliques can be created, but it does not necessarily mean that any proper monitoring is going on or proper oversight.
I would argue that no one walks the streets with the same power as a garda or police constable and that is the reason for oversight. I recall being very engaged and convinced by a senior police officer in Northern Ireland when I asked whether we were not downloading ourselves with oversight. His answer was, "Denis, you tell me anybody else who has the type of authority that I have, in that I can put you away for a night or two and you are not going to demand oversight".
When that power is considered against a background of the intelligence services and so on, and the experience we have had in Northern Ireland, then it is obvious that oversight becomes important. It is a question of how such oversight is to be created. We have been lucky in that we are beginning to learn from the experience of district policing partnerships on which the police do not have a seat. They come and give their reports, answer questions and engage with that. The district policing partnerships have two responsibilities. One is to monitor the performance of the police and the other is to properly engage the wider community within the wider policing mechanisms.
At this point in our development we have done reasonably well at the monitoring stage but not particularly well in engaging the wider community in providing effective and efficient policing. That is part of the next stage to be addressed.
The task in which this committee is involved is one of the most central and important that the Government is gifted with at the moment. It involves providing safety, decency and a sense of well-being within community. I will end on this note, which is important and is something I have noticed in recent years. There has always been a debate between effective policing and what the community wants. Senior police officers will tell one that what the community wants is not effect policing. They will say for example that patrols on the street do not deliver effective policing. They will say that there are better and more professional ways of policing. The community, on the other hand, will say they want police officers walking the street and there is this supposed clash. I have come to the conclusion that both sides are right, but the police and the community are looking for two different things. The police officer wants effective policing and he is right in saying the man or woman on the beat does not provide this. The person who lives on the street, however, and who wants the beat officer there is also right because what he or she is talking about is the fear of crime. If one looks at policing at the moment throughout all of these islands and further afield, the actual number of crimes is dropping and the fear of crime is rising. That is true in Ireland, currently. The two separate dynamics can be engaged in and progress can be achieved. There are new developments within policing that can provide for both those needs. In other words, police can be very effective and professional in what they do, but they can actually meet the needs of people in addressing the fear of crime, which is a slightly different matter. Some of that can be done through community policing, but to develop it will depend on the style, the fashion and the mechanisms engaged in.
I have probably talked for far too long at this time of the day. That is not unusual for me.