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Back to Archives | Back to October 2003 Contents 

Policing Reform in Northern Ireland

Thomas Constantine, Oversight Commissioner for Policing Reform in Northern Ireland

A panel of IACP leaders met with members of the Northern Ireland policing reform oversight team near IACP headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, July 16–17, 2002.

eforming a law enforcement agency is never an easy task. Even in the best of circumstances, a police executive is often confronted with resistance from officers, concern from elected officials, and suspicion from community members. But in a society as divided as that of Northern Ireland, with its long history of strife, any efforts at police reform become even more challenging.

Yet this is precisely the kind of environment currently confronting the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). For the past three years, the PSNI has been undergoing a reform effort that is stunning in both its breadth and complexity. They are not attempting to simply revise their policies and procedures. They are engaged in an effort that will fundamentally change the culture of the organization, the demographics of the police service, and its relationship with all segments of the community.

Policing in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, and the Patten Commission

The roots of the problem go back to the very foundation of the Northern Ireland state in 1922. Since that time, which also saw the creation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the forerunner of the PSNI), the composition of the police has been disproportionately Protestant and unionist. In addition, the police have been identified by some of the population not primarily as upholders of the law but as defenders of the state, and the nature of the state itself has remained the central issue of political argument.

There was intermittent violence in Northern Ireland almost from its inception, and the period between 1922 and 1969 saw 28 officers lose their lives. Between 1969 and 1998, known as the Time of the Troubles, 302 police officers were killed in the line of duty, and hundreds more were injured or maimed. Routine patrolling in many areas could only be accomplished in armored vehicles, and often only with a military escort.

In total, 3,480 deaths are directly attributable to the Troubles, the majority of them civilians. As percentage of the Northern Ireland's population, those deaths represented a loss equivalent to 39,000 deaths in the state of New York. As the Report of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, also known as the Patten Commission, stated:

This identification of police and state is contrary to policing practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. It has left the police in an unenviable position, lamented by many police officers. In one political language they are the custodians of nationhood. In its rhetorical opposite they are the symbols of oppression. Policing therefore goes right to the heart of the sense of security and identity of both communities and, because of the differences between them, this seriously hampers the effectiveness of the police service in Northern Ireland.

These problems have been exacerbated by three decades of conflict which have inevitably aggravated the divisions within Northern Ireland society. Violence has increased intolerance, mutual distrust between people of different traditions and disrespect for each other's convictions and human rights. It has distorted both the RUC's approach to policing and the community's attitude to the policing of its streets and neighborhoods. Policing cannot be fully effective when the police have to operate from fortified stations in armoured vehicles, and when police officers dare not tell their children what they do for a living for fear of attack from extremists from both sides.1

In 1998, leaders from Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and various political parties in Northern Ireland reached agreement on a series of proposals aimed at resolving the long-standing conflict that had plagued Northern Ireland for decades. Central to this agreement, which came to be known as the Good Friday Agreement, was the recognition by all parties that policing was not only a highly contentious issue but also central to any hope for a brighter future.

Thomas Constantine, second from right, policing reform oversight commissioner in Northern Ireland, led a meeting of IACP panelists and members of his oversight team in July 2002. At right is Chief William B. Berger, then president of the IACP.
The Good Friday Agreement pointed the way to a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland, with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole. The agreement envisioned a police service that is professional, effective, impartial, and, most importantly, free from partisan political control. To ensure that this critical issue was adequately dealt with, the Good Friday Agreement also established the Independent (Patten) Commission to carry out a comprehensive and fundamental review of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and to recommend proposals for a new policing service.

After 15 months of exhaustive research and consultations, the Independent Commission reached a unanimous consensus on the changes that would be required for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland. The commission's report, released in September 1999, set forth 175 revisions to policing strategies, focussing on key areas such as human rights, accountability, community policing, public-order policing, and others. Also recommended was a rigorous and perhaps unique structure of governance and accountability, with a new policing board, an ombudsman with powers to investigate police misconduct, and district policing partnerships for grassroots accountability between local police commanders and the community. The final chapter of the Independent Commission Report recommended the appointment of an oversight commissioner with responsibility for the following:

  • Supervising the implementation of all 175 recommendations
  • Ensuring that the recommendations were implemented comprehensively and faithfully
  • Assuring the community as a whole that all aspects of the Independent Commission Report were being implemented and could be seen to be implemented

The sole caveat put forward in the Independent Commission Report was that the oversight commissioner come from outside the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, a requirement designed to underscore the independence of the oversight commissioner.

Implementation of the Independent Commission Report

In May 2000 I had the honor to be appointed as the oversight commissioner for policing reform in Northern Ireland. One of the first and most important tasks facing me was to identify and recruit an expert team of leading academic and law enforcement executives to assist in the evaluation process and in the production of detailed periodic reports on the progress being made. Thankfully, a number of highly experienced and talented individuals agreed to join me in this challenging but rewarding effort:

  • David Bayley, former dean of the School of Criminal Justice, State University of New York at Albany
  • Roy Berlinquette, former deputy commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  • Al Hutchinson, chief of staff to the oversight commissioner and former assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  • Gil Kleinknecht, former director of the U.S. Marshals Service and past treasurer of the IACP
  • Robert Lunney, past president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) and a retired chief of police
  • Mark Reber, director of research for the oversight commissioner, seconded from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli
  • Charles Reynolds, past president of the IACP and a retired chief of police

The Independent Commission's report contained no specific measures against which to evaluate progress in relation to the 175 recommendations. As a result, it was essential that the oversight team and I had a clear set of performance indicators that would form a baseline against which progress could be measured. Therefore, we developed 772 performance indicators that represent the backbone of our evaluations. The performance indicators are the result of a comprehensive and rigorous research program that included a detailed review of trends in policing best practices and extensive interviews with key government officials, political leaders, police executives, church leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and human rights groups with an interest in the policing issue.

We also developed a three-stage evaluation process for use at each review stage in measuring and reporting on progress. For each of the 772 performance indicators we initially look for administrative compliance in the form of directives, policy changes, and similar documentation. This is followed by interviews with key officials and persons identified as being responsible for the changes. The final stage of each review involves extensive site visits to determine actual compliance with the recommendations.

The performance indicators provide us with an outline of current practices and are not intended to serve as a final measure of progress; rather, they are only instruments against which to evaluate progress. Final responsibility and accountability for full and comprehensive progress remains vested with the various institutions responsible for implementing the changes recommended by the Independent Commission.

My team is aware that our responsibilities are of necessity reflective of the enormity, scope, and magnitude of the changes recommended by the Independent Commission. In the course of our research, on-site evaluations, and analysis, we have reviewed more than 5,000 critical documents and reports and conducted more than 500 meetings with the key principals responsible for implementing their respective areas of change. In addition, we have collectively visited more than 100 police stations throughout Northern Ireland, where we met with senior command officers, first-line supervisors, and rank-and-file police officers. The products of this research and evaluation are more than 1,000 pages of detailed and comprehensive analysis of the pace of progress in the changes to policing in Northern Ireland.

IACP's Role

A central component of the oversight plan was also to conduct periodic discussions with leading law enforcement experts who are still active in policing. Although the team that supports and assists me as oversight commissioner is itself made up of persons who have significant law enforcement experience, it is necessary, given the complexity of Northern Ireland's police reform process, to consult periodically with other leading police executives who are still in active service.

To that end we, in cooperation with Michael Robinson, who was then president of the IACP, established a protocol for this form of periodic expert consultation. The IACP panel chosen to meet with the oversight team and myself are persons who have vast law enforcement experience as well as reputations for integrity and professionalism. The following executives made up the first consultation panel that met with members of the oversight team near IACP headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 16 and 17, 2002:

  • William Berger, chief of the North Miami Beach Police Department and then president of the IACP
  • Gwen Boniface, commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police and then president of the CACP
  • Sylvester Daughtry Jr., executive director of the Committee for Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies and past president of the IACP
  • Paul Evans, then commissioner of the Boston, Massachusetts, Police Department
  • James McMahon, then superintendent of the New York State Police and then general chairman of the IACP State and Provincial Policing Division
  • Daniel Rosenblatt executive director of the IACP
  • Giuliano Zaccardelli, commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police

The objective of the meeting was to ensure that our evaluations, analyses, and reporting are at the highest possible level of professionalism and integrity. Among other things, the IACP panel reviewed and discussed pertinent oversight issues, including the role of the Special Branch in criminal intelligence gathering and sharing, police training, civilianization, police integrity systems, and public order policing.

The team of experts assigned to the oversight commissioner, and the leaders selected by the IACP, are some of the leading law enforcement executives in the world. The ability to combine the talents of these two groups to focus on the oversight of policing reforms in Northern Ireland was a unique opportunity for all concerned. The contributions of the IACP panel were beneficial, as they further enhanced the operational development of the Independent Commission's recommendations and the way the oversight process is conducted.

Current Status and Progress

To date, my team and I have issued eight comprehensive reports. The first two reports related to the oversight planning and methodology, including performance indicators, and the last six reports have detailed the progress that has been made in implementing the Independent Commission's recommendations.

It is important to understand that, taken as a whole, the Independent Commission's recommendations are perhaps the most comprehensive and complex set of police reforms attempted in a democratic society. Implementing these recommendations is a challenging task for the police service. In fact, the scope and magnitude of the changes recommended in the Independent Commission's report are unparalleled in modern-day policing. Each recommendation requires a significant application of resources and effort, as well as sufficient lead-time, to be realized.

However, as a result of extensive research, analysis of policies, and field evaluations, it is the considered opinion of the oversight team that there has been substantial overall progress made in fulfilling the Independent Commission's intentions. I believe that with continued effort and the will to change, along with the support of the entire community, there is good cause for optimism. ♦

For more information, please visit, (This URL no longer works. If you know the updated URL, please email with a short message naming the article, issue, and new URL, Thank you!) or send an e-mail message to Al Hutchinson, chief of staff of the office of the oversight commissioner, at

1 Independent Commission for Policing in Northern Ireland, A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland (1999), 2-3.



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 10, October 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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