By Patrick Markey
A residential block on New York City’s 163rd Street in the Bronx seems an unlikely location for the Royal Ulster Constabulary to start its search for role models.
But a New York Police Department program there to combat illegal narcotics trafficking is one of several initiatives members of the Independent Commission on Policing discussed on their recent tour of the U.S., where they were searching for answers to the Northern Ireland policing puzzle.
In a two-week visit of American and Canadian police departments, the eight-member commission led by Chris Patten touched on issues that observers say are central to the creation of a Northern Irish police force acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.
Members of the Patten Commission have declined to speculate on what policing changes they might recommend and have been equally reticent to discuss their recent U.S. visit, though it is possible to piece together details of their trip through discussions with the various police departments they visited. What is known is that the commission is scheduled to release a report and recommendations by this summer.
The British government still has control over security issues in Northern Ireland, and so Westminster, rather than the new Stormont assembly, would to make all decisions on how best to implement the commission’s recommendations. According to the Good Friday peace agreement, however, all political parties and the Irish government will be involved in those discussions.
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Meeting with officials in New York City, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Atlanta and Canada, the commission reviewed composition, minority recruitment, community relations and initiatives designed to deal with specific issues, such as drugs, according to law enforcement officials involved in the tour.
But while discussing such problems as youth crime, composition and recruitment were insightful, there was a sense that those lessons would be overshadowed by the practicality of applying American scenarios to the political reality of Northern Ireland policing, some observers said.
In New York, typically, one major discussion point was minority recruitment and the composition of the New York Police Department, which over the last decade has done much to improve how its ranks reflect the ethnic make-up of the city.
The New York Police Department faced difficulties in getting minorities to join its ranks, mainly because African Americans and those of Latin heritage failed to see the force as a viable profession, said Lance Smith, project director of the Regional Community Policing Institute at New York’s John Jay College.
One avenue that the NYPD explored to bring in minority candidates was reaching out through the college system, Smith said, a channel other police departments are using to bring in more minorities.
"There has been some impact and it will eventually reflect the city," Smith said. "But it is still not at the level that the administrators would like to see it. . . . A visit to the NYPD would shed some light on remodeling and regeneration of the RUC."
The institute has also been involved in training new graduates in "multi-ethnicity" courses, where they are exposed to the languages and cultures of the city’s major ethnic groups — Haitian, Chinese, African American and Spanish, Smith said.
John Timoney, a former NYPD commissioner and now police commissioner in Philadelphia, also met with the Patten delegation when they visited New York. Composition, minority recruitment and how to attract good quality candidates were all subjects broached in discussions here, he said.
While discussing these broad topics, the delegation also learned about two specific programs in New York — the Model Block program, and a narcotics program, the Northern Manhattan Initiative, one commission member said.
The model block, one example of which is the 163rd Street program, involves police working with residents to take back streets and blocks that are controlled by drug dealers. Community relations are the base on which the program builds.
"The program is an outreach to the community to show how collaboration can improve the quality of life," according to Smith.
In situations where landlords and residents are intimidated and the block’s commercial property is used as fronts for drug operations, residents work with police to take back the area block by block, Smith said.
But Timoney said, discussions in New York also revealed how acutely aware the commission is of the political shadow cast over these programs when applied to Northern Ireland.
It was not enough for the RUC to recruit from Catholic areas, Timoney said, when some were still calling the constabulary an illegal force. Even in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s, when officers set dogs and water canons on women and children, there was no call for the police to disband, Timoney said.
"It took nearly 20 years of institutional changes to make that police force start to reflect the area it served," Timoney said.
Short-term changes, such as removing symbols that are offensive to one side, had to be followed by long-term strategies such as working on the quality and education of recruits, Timoney said.
In Canada, several commission members met with both the Toronto Police Service and the Ontario Provisional Police, as well as with representatives of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, said Sgt. Tom Russell of the Toronto Police Service.
Composition of the Toronto City’s metropolitan police is a hotly debated issue now as the force strives to reflect the city’s rapidly growing ethnic population. The service’s outreach program strategies and recruitment practices were particularly relevant to the visiting delegation, Russell said. The Toronto police are also currently reaching out to colleges, where minorities are better represented, in an attempt to draw students into the police service.
The commission was also lectured by Canadian officers who specialize in outreach programs that involve the community in local policing decisions and on the TPS community policing philosophy, Russell said. Commanding officers in Toronto present a year-long strategy and are held accountable for their plan, whether it involves reducing crime, the command’s financial budget, or some aspect of community liaison, he said.
But here, too, during a luncheon break in the presentations, talk turned to the political difficulties of remodeling the RUC, Russell said.
The commission had also intended to review the restorative justice initiative, an innovative program that brings together crime victims and the perpetrators for a face-to-face encounter. As part of a non-jail term and their community service, the criminal must face his victim and discuss the incident. That program is still in its infancy in Canada, Russell said.
Community relations and civilian involvement were also the focus of the commission’s visit to the smaller police force in Charlotte, N.C., said Marylyn Williams, an assistant to the chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
With a membership of 1,500 uniformed staff and 400 civilians the department was first noted by the commission for its youth programs, but later the tour included briefings on community policing and accountability, she said.
"They were interested in the make-up of our department and how it paralleled the ethnic community," she said. Charlotte’s population is 32 to 33 percent African American and the department now comprises of 19-20 percent minority officers.