The PSNI didn't exactly distinguish themselves over the holidays. They had to do something after the biggest robbery in the history of Ireland and Britain but in more than one way, they showed the world they hadn't got a clue. How do we know? They followed the Norn Irn version of the Vichy cop in the film Casablanca, "raid the usual suspects". In Norn Irn you do it by postcode: BT11, BT12 and BT14.
It's quite clear the police had no information or evidence whatsoever to justify their raids which they inflicted on homes and commercial premises as a crude fishing exercise. Throw out a grappling hook, drag it in and you never know what you might find on the end of it: a pot of gold, a packet of Northern Bank tenners or an oul' boot. In this case 16 pairs of boots, though new ones.
Plus ca change. There has never been a similar exercise in loyalist districts since the seventies and even then it was the British army who did the dirty work. At the height of the loyalist feud in 2000 the police seemed content to stand by as the UDA drove hundreds out of the lower Shankill and UVF and UDA gunmen, all known to the police, prowled the streets at will. It's OK however to raid 'known republicans'. Makes dramatic TV. Sure they're only republicans. Doesn't matter about the consequences. Sure nobody in the district supports the PSNI anyway. Who cares?
Well, the sort of PSNI tactics witnessed over the Christmas break aren't going to win over anybody in those districts. On the contrary: they will confirm people in their view that the PSNI's attitudes are no different from those of the RUC. The PSNI has a lot of work to do in this respect and they're not making much progress at it. All you have to do is read the oversight commissioner's latest report. It's available at www.oversightcommissioner.org. He finds a lot to be desired.
The commissioner, Al Hutchinson, is a mild-mannered man whose criticisms are measured and gentle but they pack a powerful punch. Politely, he praises the PSNI for the substantial changes they've made since Patten. He concludes that, "in large measure Patten's goals are being achieved." He goes on: "Does this mean all the news is good or that little remains to be done? Unfortunately the answer must be an unequivocal no." Hmm.
Civilianisation is "not as rapid as expected". The PSNI "has not demonstrated proactive engagement on the issue of civilianisation." It's "disappointing that registration of notifiable interests [membership of bodies like the Orange Order] has stalled once again with increasing questions around the ability or willingness to ultimately complete the process at all." There is no estate plan to deal with PSNI property. One promised to the commissioner for September was not provided. It is now "five years since the Patten recommendations on estate."
"Most importantly" Hutchinson says, there are "many areas in which the impacts and outcomes of changes particularly as those influence behaviour and police culture, have yet to be fully demonstrated. These include the impacts of increased human rights training...a shift to a policing with the community." North/south cooperation "has not accomplished any results on structured personnel changes". Hutchinson says the PSNI is cherry-picking Patten in this area.
There are many other criticisms, but Hutchinson's thematic report on 'policing with the community' which Patten said should become "the core function of the PSNI and of every police station" makes for disturbing reading. Of course republican communities are not playing their part, which makes for obvious difficulties. Nevertheless, Hutchinson concludes that there is a 'split force concept' in the PSNI as a result of which Neighbourhood Policing or community relations is a 'specialist task', the poor relation, often done by reservists, while response teams do the real policing.
Fairly obvious questions for the Policing Board are why has the PSNI not pursued the 'core function' as recommended by Patten? Why is it that five years down the road so many strategic plans have either not been presented or implemented? Admittedly it was unfortunate the oversight report was published on December 14 as the failed SF/DUP agreement dominated the news. Even so, it would be a shame if it were buried as the silence from the board and the nauseatingly misleading NIO statement welcoming the report would indicate. If you were to give the PSNI a mark on the basis of this report it would be five out of 10, with the comment 'must try harder'. As for the Policing Board, the mark would be four and the comment, 'paper tiger'.