Category: Archive

Constantine, Patten’s watchdog, will have hands full

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

Tom Constantine patrolled the highways as a New York state trooper for more than two decades. Later, he climbed his way through the ranks to run the state police. And for five years he headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

But this week, as Constantine visits Belfast for only the second time, the 60-year-old retired police chief must draw all his 39 years of law enforcement experience as he embarks on his latest assignment — stepping into the fray of Northern Ireland’s turbulent politics.

Since being appointed Oversight Commissioner to monitor the implementation of the Patten reforms three weeks ago, Constantine has already held a whirlwind round of meetings with the North’s major political players and a host of human-rights experts.

He also faced off with Belfast’s press pack, who grilled him on the efficacy and sensitivity an outsider could bring the intricacies of policing a divided society.

But Constantine, a straight talker who is no stranger to parrying criticism, appears acutely aware of the political minefield he must navigate.

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"I have to set out a standard. I’m not going to get involved in politics," Constantine said recently before leaving for Belfast from Albany, where he teaches and runs a private security firm.

"That is the responsibility of the people who live in Northern Ireland. I can provide an honest and objective evaluation of whether the changes are being implemented."

The Patten report, Constantine believes, is one of the best written reports on policing he has seen. As Oversight Commissioner he will check that policing reforms are implemented correctly and present a report on the progress of that process.

That belief and a sense of duty to the improving the lot of law enforcement have pushed this Irish-American Catholic into Northern Ireland’s harsh spotlight.

"I had a sense in my mind that this was a very positive thing and something I couldn’t walk away from," he said.

It is also an opportunity for him to pay back all that policing has given to him.

"This is my profession and anything I can do to make it more accepted and to improve it, I will," he said.

From his early days as a state trooper and later as the head of DEA, Constantine has witnessed and participated in the complex shifts in American policing over the last four decades.

Starting with integration and expanded hiring of more minorities through to downsizing and dramatic changes in training, he believes those changes are similar to the reforms envisioned by Patten, albeit in a much more concentrated form.

His experience of handling highly complex federal issues, Constantine believes, will help him remain independent and non-partisan, but also allow him maintain his integrity, a value upon which he places huge importance.

"If I thought I had to lose that, it would not be something I could do," he said.

The commissioner posting began floating around international law enforcement circles soon after the Patten report was released. At a meeting of international police chiefs last year, Constantine was approached.

But he had thought the position would require years living abroad and having recently retired to spend more time with his children and grandchildren, that was not an option Constantine considered.

Once he realized that the job did not mean two or three years away from home, the idea of reforming a police force piqued his interest, he said.

Those who know the man whose life has been molded by law enforcement believe Constantine is well suited to his new Northern Ireland posting.

Constantine is acknowledged for his skills as a manager, a man who worked his way up through the ranks to shine as a leading law enforcement expert, his associates said.

James McMahon, who now heads the New York State Police and followed Constantine into the post, said his former boss takes an innovative and flexible approach to tackling problems as they arise.

During his time with the state force, Constantine developed numerous programs to deal with new problems and shifting demands of the communities he served, McMahon said. It was a skill he developed working from the street up.

"Anything he has asked someone to do, he’s done it," McMahon said. "He’s been there and he’s done it."

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