Category: Archive

Policing commission takes a look at U.S. departments

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Policing has been at the heart of the Northern Ireland problem from that day in October 1968 when civil rights demonstrators were batoned in Derry, through the shoot-to-kill allegations of the early 1980s, to the current controversy over the police handling of the Orange marchers at Drumcree, Co. Armagh. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, a commission under the chairmanship of Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, was set up to look at the whole issue of how the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland police, might be reformed in keeping with the political changes which are taking place in the province.

Last week, members of the commission were in New York as part of a program to look at the practices of police forces in several U.S. cities that have to deal with the difficulties of policing divided communities.

Last December, they spent two weeks on a "road-show" going around Northern Ireland from community to community eliciting people’s views on what should be done about the RUC.

"The raw emotion was absolutely incredible," recalled Kathleen O’Toole, the former Boston police officer who is a member of the commission and was with them on their U.S. visit. "That two weeks was without a doubt the most valuable part of the program. It was a great exercise in democracy."

O’Toole, whose last policing assignment was in the cabinet of the governor of Massachusetts, where she oversaw 30 agencies, said that her current position on the commission was the "most challenging job" she has ever undertaken. The challenge consists in trying to reconcile conflicting attitudes to the RUC, which range from those of republicans who want the RUC disbanded to those of middle-class Protestants who object to almost any interference or change in how the force is run. However, O’Toole is hopeful that there are grounds for agreement.

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"Everyone agrees that composition is an issue, and that it’ll have to change," she said, referring to the fact that the RUC is over 90 percent Protestant in a society with the Catholic minority that now stands at around 43 percent. Everywhere she went, she reported there was "significant concern about drugs and youth violence." As well, both Protestants and Catholics agreed that there was a need for a more "sensitive and open" community policing strategy. The commission was hoping to learn about these aspects of the problem from the experience of the police departments they were visiting in the U.S.

"U.S. police departments have faced the composition issue for years, especially in the inner cities," said O’Toole. "Experience has taught that the department’s composition should reflect the ethnic or racial make-up of the community it polices."

On the New York trip, the commission spent time looking at community policing practices in New York, the Manhattan North program to combat drugs, and the Model Block Program. As well, they spoke with experts at John Jay College and human rights groups.

After New York, some members of the commission traveled to Canada to look at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Ontario Provincial Police and the "restorative justice" program in Toronto. Meanwhile, O’Toole and other members of the commission traveled to Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. A visit to Los Angeles will reunite them. The visit ends on Jan. 26.

O’Toole’s connection with Northern Ireland began a few years earlier when she spoke there on community policing and domestic violence issues. So far, for it has been a learning experience. "I grew up with a typical romanticized vision of Ireland," she said. "Then I met some people from Northern Ireland and realized it was a lot more complicated."

For O’Toole, it clearly has been a moving and exhilarating period. She marveled at how articulate most people were at the meetings, in spite of the emotional outbursts that punctuated the discussions.

"In most instances people read from a prepared script," she said. "It’s an advantage when people are well prepared and well organized." She found that in similar community exercises here, people were apathetic.

Most important, she said she feels that the commission managed to "get beyond the political rhetoric" in the community hearings.

"We’ve an opportunity to create a model of excellence in policing," she said in conclusion about what she believes is the most important assignment of her career.

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