Northern Ireland a model for rebuilding trust in police

A stunning vote of support for Northern Ireland's much-revamped police by the faction that once fiercely attacked it shows it's possible to revive public confidence in local badge-wearers amid conflict – if police reforms are properly carried out. Some lessons are worth teasing out from this turnaround.

On Jan. 28, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, Sinn Fein, threw its support behind the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. For decades, the RUC was the IRA's nemesis.

This welcomed about-face is expected to help pave the way for a power-sharing government between rival Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. It should also encourage police reformers from Congo to East Timor, though one doesn't need to look overseas to understand how a clean and evenhanded police force is vital to society.

Just consider a megacity such as Los Angeles. More than 40 years after the Watts riots, the city is still struggling with a mistrust of police in poor, minority, high-crime neighborhoods. Last summer, a city task force set up to give an accounting of a seven-year-old police scandal warned of future crises if the police department, among other things, fails to drop "warrior policing."

Policing is government's protective presence. It should keep crime in check and ensure safety for all citizens, no matter their religious or political beliefs, their ethnicity or race. Such safety allows civic and economic life to take root and grow.

When police themselves become criminals, or when they literally war against the people – as in Iraq – political, social, and economic growth don't stand a chance.

Even during the worst of its decades of the "Troubles," now peaceful Northern Ireland was no Iraq. And indeed, there's no police-reform "template" that can be slapped on any strife-torn region.

After the ethnic breakup of the former Yugoslavia, for instance, the international community started a police force from scratch in Kosovo (its local Serb force fled to Serbia). In Bosnia, it had the more challenging job of changing the existing force.

Yet certain principles have helped move Northern Ireland's police to the point of political acceptance – principles which are worth considering elsewhere.

For instance, the current police force, which was established in 2001, aims for balance in its mix of officers. About 20 percent of the formerly Protestant force is now Catholic, a percentage that should increase with Sinn Fein's new support.

The reforms also emphasized community policing. And they stripped nonpolice functions, such as intelligence, from the force. A broadly based policing board now provides for oversight and accountability.

Just days before Sinn Fein voted, a police ombudsman released a damaging report that reinforced the party's criticisms of the former force. On the other hand, the fact that an honest ombudsman even exists should encourage Sinn Fein and its supporters.

Such steps as force diversity, restructuring, and oversight are starting to work in Northern Ireland, and they can work elsewhere. Patience must go hand in hand with reform.

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