Police accountability: a mechanism for peace and justice

5 December 2016

Police Service of Northern Ireland

As this article goes to print the Colombian Government is engaged in reframing Colombia’s historic peace agreement. President Juan Manuel Santos recently visited Northern Ireland (NI) remarking that: “The NI peace process is a constant reminder of what is possible. We have learned from your past, admire your present and will work with you in our future.” Indeed, the NI peace process continues to be a point of learning in many parts of the world. Fundamental to the process was the issue of policing, and below we examine the links between good policing, peace and justice.

‘The strategic importance of the routine’

‘The strategic importance of the routine’ was the philosophy behind the dispensation of policing in Northern Ireland after the peace process. Operational performance, reliability and accountability are key to public trust in the police yet engaging in everyday policing was not an easy task given the lack of trust between the police and communities stemming from years of conflict. But the philosophy emphasised that peace was a process, not an event, and that the police’s part in it had to be earned. Organisational level changes such as new uniforms, badges, systems, processes and affirmative action in recruitment would be unsuccessful if the everyday encounters were negative. A police organisation can have the most sophisticated and progressive policies, but if people experience policing negatively at the individual level all of this can count for nothing.

As such, police around the world teach Locard’s exchange principle that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. This is as true of relational interactions as it is of physical contact, and helps officers to understand the strategic impact of their daily conduct. But two questions arise from this thesis that merit further attention:  What does everyday interaction with communities matter for peace and justice? And how do you connect the two?

Why does accountability matter?

Dunne and Williamson, on examining the relationship between the US Government and the current El-Sisi administration in Egypt, argued that, ‘on the face of it, counterterrorism and human rights abuses might appear to be unrelated subjects. U.S. officials certainly treat them that way; they expect Sisi to be a useful ally in fighting terrorism, while bemoaning his repression and human rights abuses. But on closer examination there is a critical connection: widespread human rights abuses threaten to push alienated Egyptians into the arms of extremist groups, as well as create a broader swath of society unwilling to help the state.’ Indeed arbitrary detentions, lack of accountability for state killings and exclusion of Islamists from aspects of political and public life means, ‘Egypt may well be fueling terrorism at a faster pace than fighting it.’[1]

Counter-terrorism, security, human rights and law enforcement are not mutually exclusive. For example, counter-terrorism measures need human rights standards to ensure that their implementation does not undermine their very purpose, which is to protect and maintain a democratic society.[2] Similarly, unaccountable policing that results in civilian casualties can change popular attitudes from neutrality to anger and even build support for more extreme groups. Indeed, heavy-handed ‘operation[s] that kill five insurgents [are] counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of fifty more insurgents.’[3]

It is difficult to get the balance right. A key strategy adopted by terrorist organisations is to provoke violent responses from the state to justify their own behaviour as retaliatory.[4] In Northern Ireland, it was vital for police officers to understand how easily use of force (even when legally justified) can undermine popular support and fuel unrest, and that finding the sweet spot between tactical and strategic policing in a conflicted society can hinge on demonstrating the accountability, proportionality and professional conduct necessary at all levels including day-to-day interactions with the public.[5]

These approaches chime with Peter Neyroud’s concept of Rightful Policing,[6] which describes ’a third way’ that attempts to account for what the public really care about when they assess police conduct. “It doesn’t depend on the lawfulness of police conduct,” says Neyroud, “it depends primarily on the procedural justice or fairness of that conduct.” In other words, it’s routine interaction and accountability. Thinking about policing in this more qualitative way may “help us move toward police governance that is substantively, as opposed to rhetorically, democratic.”

How to connect the two?

Dunne’s article on Egypt highlighted significant levels of state repression and the radicalising effect that it has had on some ideological groups. Yet demonstrators continue to be killed and there has been no transitional justice or other mechanism to hold police and army officers accountable for their actions. Four police officers were initially convicted for an incident in which thirty-seven prisoners died after being tear-gassed inside a police vehicle, but these were overturned on appeal. This combination of an excessive and irregular use of force without accountability is toxic for peace and justice; lending further credence to the theory that the opposite (good police conduct at the tactical level and robust accountability at both individual and institutional levels) are beneficial for it.

But accountability is only possible with oversight, which serves to ensure that the quality of everyday encounters between police and citizens is positive and preventative rather than a cause or driver of conflict. Oversight is as much about culture as it is about formal mechanisms, which correlates to George Kelling’s deduction that ‘the primary determinant of police officer behaviour is the culture in which they find themselves.’ [7]  And so perhaps accountability is the most effective way to wed routine policing operations to fostering a culture of public service that contributes to longer-term peace and justice.

The police are ‘citizens in uniform’[8] and effective policing depends upon trusting relationships between themselves and the communities they serve. That may sound idealistic, but there is a practical incentive as well as a moral obligation here. Even in technologically advanced societies with access to modern crime fighting innovations, the vast majority of crimes are still solved or prevented as a result of information and action coming from the community. Unfortunately we know that trust is slowly won but can be quickly lost.  Police in many jurisdictions are often considered the primary cause of insecurity, and even in more benign environments police practices can be oppressive, aggressive and transgress laws and protocol. This is often excused by the difficult operating environment police face. But of course, even if case clearances improve in the short term, unaccountable and abusive behaviour only makes an environment more difficult to police over the longer period as the public begin to distrust and turn away from the state providers.

Policy frameworks are important but not enough to prevent this. They are supposed to ensure high quality service delivery but policies do not always become routine practice and translated into operational culture. For example the South African policy on dealing with protests (Standing Order 262) says ‘the use of force should be avoided at all costs,’ yet at Marikana on 16th August 2012, police fired over 700 rounds of live ammunition, killing 34 miners and wounding almost 80. This could be seen in large part as the result of a culture of impunity that had developed within South African policing. Kelling, again, offers advice as to how to counteract the effects of a negative policing culture – leadership through values, accountability to the community and accountability within the force.

We saw this in Northern Ireland, where the police reform programme resulted in it becoming one of the most scrutinised policing organisations in the world. Significant changes in behaviour, especially around the use of force, were manifest, but more revealingly, a transformation in the culture of the organisation and of individual officers is what has mattered most for peace and justice. While most outside observers assume that Northern Ireland is ‘fixed,’ that’s not quite the reality. There are still those who are committed to violence, however they remain a tiny fraction of society with dwindling support and a lack of justification for their actions. Take the example from 2011 when a young catholic police officer from a ‘republican’ background was murdered. The reaction to his death was a coming together of communities to condemn it and, in a peace vigil held in his home village (a place where there was previously deep hostility towards the police), hundreds of people held placards saying ‘not in my name’. 

Good policing that contributes to peace and justice is about developing a culture of public service within a system of governance and accountability that creates rule-based predictability and consequence. Without these, what incentives are there for citizens to uphold the rule of law themselves and work with the police towards more peaceful and just societies?

Gary White MBE has served as a police officer for over thirty years in Northern Ireland, reaching the rank of Assistant Chief Constable. He has held a variety of roles, including at the operational, tactical and strategic levels, and has been instrumental in the development of ground-breaking concepts such as ‘minimum use of force’, ‘negotiation with protesters’ and the ‘facilitation of peaceful protest’.  He also wrote the policy and implementation plan for community policing in Northern Ireland, and was subsequently recognised for introducing practical initiatives that became embedded in operational policing.

Since leaving the police service, Mr White has worked as a consultant in such roles as Deployable Civilian Expert to the British Government’s Stabilisation Unit, and Senior Policing Adviser to Saferworld. Recently, he was appointed as a lead trainer with the OSCE and is advising Amnesty International and the United Nations on policing guidelines.

Graham Mathias policing expertise draws from over 30 years spent with the Metropolitan Police Service which included a number of secondments as policing advisor to other countries' governments. He has also spent time working as a policing adviser with the FCO, DfID and the UK Government's Security and Justice Group (Stabilisation Unit) amongst others. Graham helped the UK government develop guidelines for UK police officers sent on overseas peace support missions and was engaged with developing material for the OECD-DAC guidelines on security sector reform. Graham is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and has an MSc in Economics. Since 2002 Graham has worked with Saferworld as a part-time adviser on policing and security and justice sector development. Since then he has worked on these issues in Albania, Georgia, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Moldova, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Yemen.

[1] See Appendix One (paper prepared by K. Pennington)

[2] Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe, “Countering Terrorism, Protecting Human

Rights,” OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, (Warsaw, 2007), p. 21

[3] US Army & Marine Corp. (2007), Counterinsurgency Field Manual. (COIN) Chicago.  The University of Chicago Press.

[4] Jason Franks (2005), Rethinking the Roots of Terrorism: Orthodox Terrorism Theory and Beyond, Hampshire: Palgrave McMillan

[5] These issues are explored substantially in the Saferworld publication ‘Reflections on NI Experience’

[6] Peter Neyroud, Former Chief Constable and leading academic on UK Policing  Rightful Policing: Kennedy Sch Gov. Harvard – Executive Session on Policing and Public Policy -Tracey L. Meares, with Peter Neyroud

[7] George Kelling: Criminologist - Author of the Broken Windows theory of Crime Control

[8] Quote from- Sir Robert Peel – Founder of the London Metropolitan Police

Read previous blog posts from our justice and peace series

“Counter-terrorism, security, human rights and law enforcement are not Counter-terrorism, security, human rights and law enforcement are not mutually exclusive. For example, counter-terrorism measures need human rights standards to ensure that their implementation does not undermine their very purpose, which is to protect and maintain a democratic society”

Gary White and Graham Mathias