A restorative approach to policing reform: Lessons from Northern Ireland

Protesters and riot police clash in Hong Kong on June 12. Photo: CNS /Reuters

Though not among the original five demands of the protesters, policing reform has been increasingly discussed as one of the “next steps” for the Hong Kong government to take to adequately respond to widespread dissatisfaction with various aspects of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF). 

Proposals range from reform aiming at dispensing with colonial-era policing concepts and tactics (Purbrick 2019) to outright disbandment of the Force. Several commentators have also raised the “classic example” of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland (ICP) led by Chris Patten (later Lord Patten of Barnes) as a successful “model” for the city at present (Shen 2019). 

This essay aims to flesh out the argument for designing policing reform for the HKPF based on the Northern Ireland “model” in order to arrive at a more realistic learning process from its qualified success.

From crown instrument to community servant
With all its imperfections and lingering problems, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) —the successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) since 2001—is by-and-large a success story to date. Given the Protestant-Catholic divide of the population and the RUC’s perceived pro-unionist bias during (and before) the Troubles (1968-1998), a most-telling measure of PSNI’s success is naturally whether it is able to win the confidence of the Catholic community. 

In the three years leading up to the formation of the Patten Commission in June 1998, surveys showed that “only around one quarter to a third of Catholics” thought that the police treated the two communities equally (ICP 1999: 3.7). 

The figure is now over three quarters (76 per cent), according the latest Northern Ireland Crime Survey released by the Department of Justice in May this year (Table A1.1) (comparative Protestant ratings were around 70 per cent and 88 per cent respectively). 

When it comes to the performance of the Police Ombudsman—a new institution endorsed by the Patten Commission—the Catholic respondents are actually more satisfied (90 per cent) than the Protestant ones (85 per cent). 

This is no small achievement by any standard, notwithstanding Catholics’ overall confidence in policing (taking into account also the performance of the Policing Board) still trails that of the Protestants’ (78 per cent vs 84 per cent).

But to give all the credit to the Patten Commission would be something that I think even Lord Patten himself would find misleading. Not the least because the commission’s recommendations were initially watered down by the Labour government then (“perfidious Britannia” according to Brendan O’Leary), who were eager to cajole the Unionists outraged by the Commission’s proposal to remove things “royal” and “British” from the RUC name and badge into returning to the Northern Ireland Executive in May 2000, which had been bogged down by the lack of progress in decommissioning by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

Contemporary commentators also pointed to the contributions of other policing reviews and inquiries conducted around the same time, most notably the RUC internal review in 1996 and the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee reports in 1998. 

More importantly, the Commission’s success was in large measure a result of the ambitious Terms of Reference (TOR) included in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (GFA), which guided and framed its work. As the local members of the Commission asserted, controversial changes had already been “pre-agreed” (Walsh 2017: 49).

These changes included the “development of a police service representative in terms of the make-up of the community as a whole” (paragraph 1 of the section on “Policing and Justice” in the GFA), which gave birth to the 50:50 recruitment of Catholics and non-Catholics to the PSNI to address the problem of underrepresentation (Catholic share of the force/service rose from eight per cent in 1999 to 30 per cent in 2011, when the policy was phased out). 

The reformed police service was also to be “accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves” (para 2), which presaged the community-policing model favoured by the Commission, with ambitious proposals to develop “District Policing Partnership Boards” (DPPBs) by every District Council (ICP 1999: 6.26). Finally, the TOR also established the primary objective of the commission as designing policing arrangements through which the new police service could enjoy “widespread community support.”

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The Patten commission: not a committee of inquiry

The last point about “widespread support” was crucial to understanding the chosen approach of the Patten Commission. To begin with, it was not an “inquiry” in the strict sense. 

As stated at the outset of its report: “We were not set up as a committee of inquiry with all the legal powers to call for papers and to interrogate witnesses. We were not charged with a quasi-legal investigation of the past” (ICP 1999: 1.6). In other words, it was not the commission’s job to establish facts of the past: the various allegations of RUC’s excessive use of force, partiality, collusion, etc. This is the job of other event-specific commissions/reviews/inquiries, such as the Saville Inquiry and the De Silva Review looking into Bloody Sunday and state collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane respectively. 

Even less was it the task of the Patten Commission to determine the civil or criminal liabilities of particular RUC officers, which only a court of law (not even an inquiry panel under the Inquiries Act 2005) can do. As the Patten Commission readily conceded: “We do not … make judgments about the extent to which the RUC may or may not have been culpable in the past of inattention to human rights or abuse of human rights. … we were not charged in our terms of reference to make judgments about the past. … our approach is restorative rather than retributive” (4.4). One can see therefore the main task of the institution-specific Independent Commission on Policing as restoring the broken police-community relationship, i.e. the “mutual respect” between the two (ICP 1999: 1.7). 

The RUC as an institution could not be convicted and punished collectively, as individual officers found guilty through court proceedings could be. But an institution can always be reformed to (re)gain “widespread community support,” which is a subjective matter and is not dependent on the objective validity—important as it is in its own right—of the allegations contributing to the lack of trust.

In tasking the commission to help the new police service win “widespread support,” the GFA took it as a given that the lack of such support for the RUC was a fact and that fact alone sufficed to justify wide-ranging policing reform. In the eyes of the commission, when one section of the population identified the police “not primarily as upholders of the law but as defenders of the state”, as “symbols of oppression”, it was a problem in itself because as “servants of the community”, the police would not be able to do their job well “without the support of that community” (1.3, 1.14).

A restorative approach
To restore trust, the Patten Commission advocated the protection of human rights, not the execution of state policy, as being at the heart of policing. Hence from recruiting to training to appraisal, in the new oath as well as the new code of ethics, human dignity was to take centre stage, not the Union, the Queen or the British state. 

This was no innovation of the commission’s, as it readily acknowledged the contemporaneous developments in policing worldwide. Democratic accountability is the safeguard of human rights, hence the majority of political members in the Policing Board and the proposed DPPBs.

The restoration of trust did not have to wait until the proposed reform took place, but it began right with the commission’s own relationship with the community itself. The restorative approach of the commission started by asking how its own work could be trusted by the local people. 

Patten—once derided by loyalists as a “minister of treachery” and a name on an IRA death list in the 1980s (Patten 2017: 167, 175)—and his team decided that they would conduct the 40 or so public meetings in every District Council area to listen to the people’s past experiences with the RUC without police presence. In the words of the last Governor of Hong Kong, “How, after all, could you examine the history and behaviour of the RUC while being guarded by its officers?” (Patten 2017: 178). 

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This was more easily said than done, for barely two months after the commission began its work, a “dissident” Republican group opposing the peace settlement launched a car bomb in Omagh, killing 29 people. 

It did not deter the commission from holding a consultation in the town in December 1998. As it were, to win back trust from the community, one needs to first entrust oneself to the community.

Relevance for Hong Kong: parallel commissions?

It is not difficult to see that, despite the obvious lack of a religiously-based division in Hong Kong, the police-citizen relationship is likewise burdened by the (perceived and/or factual) excessive use of policing force, collusion between police and gangs, the identification of the police as “instrument of state oppression”, lack of accountability to the community, and mutual contempt. 

While an indispensable step towards restoring the relationship between the two remains the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) with all the legal powers needed to ascertain the facts concerning the series of events known as the Anti-Extradition-Bill Protests, the example of Northern Ireland shows that it might be advantageous to have a parallel, institution-specific ICP to simultaneously “design” policing reform for the HKPF so that it can regain “widespread support.”

While it makes sense to base policing reform on the findings of the COI, the scale and complexity of the protests and related events to date means that the timeframe for the future COI to properly complete its tasks is ever expanding. (The Saville Inquiry took 12 years, as an extreme example.) 

In the meantime, without fundamental reform, it is hard to see how the HKPF can win back widespread support. 

The unchanging political fundamentals between Hong Kong and Beijing also mean that the occasions for future clashes between police and citizens are not unlikely, to put it mildly. 

A relatively “quick” reform package based on the restorative rather than punitive approach (the Patten Commission took 15 months to produce its report; the subsequent legislative processes took another 14 months) can be helpful towards alleviating the tensions between police and citizenry during the parallel inquiry. 

At the very least, the public meetings can hopefully deliver a much-needed therapeutic process in Hong Kong—as those conducted by Patten did in Northern Ireland (Patten 2017: 181; ICP 1999: 1.19)—through which various groups of victims can speak openly of their experiences of violence in aid of healing.

The bottom line is that good police-citizen relations are in the interest of all in Hong Kong: not the least for the police themselves and their families. 

The Northern Ireland experience demonstrates that it is possible to restore the relationship no matter how bad it has been damaged. Policing without community support in a prolonged era of constitutional dispute would be an utter nightmare.

C. K. Martin Chung
Assistant professor, Hong Kong Baptist University
Visiting Research Fellow, Queen’s University Belfast
Co-editor of Reconciling with the Past: Resources and Obstacles in a Global Perspective

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