Following the reconstitution of the policing board, PSNI deputy chief constable Stephen Martin looks ahead to the formulation of a new Policing Plan and discusses its ability to build on recent outcomes-focussed initiatives.
In 2016, the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) agreed a number of long-term strategic outcomes to be achieved by 2020. The long-term outcomes were to be reached through a range of measures set out annually within the Policing Plan.
However, the collapse of Stormont and subsequent impairment of the Policing Board to carry out its full functions has resulted in the Police Service of Northern Ireland still operating within the plan designed for 2017-18.
Recently, a move by the Secretary of State to bring forward the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 paved the way for the reconstitution of the Policing Board and it is expected that the Board and the PSNI, whilst not able to provide a timeframe, will make a fresh Policing Plan an item of priority business.
Speaking to agendaNi, deputy chief constable Stephen Martin reflects an enthusiasm within the PSNI for the return of the Board.
“We are delighted to see it reconstituted. We believe that accountability for policing is essential. Here in Northern Ireland, policing has not always attracted support from right across the community and it’s important that for those with reservations that accountability exists to give them reasons to support, accept and give consent to policing.”
Martin highlights that as well as acting as a check and balance against policing’s significant power, the Board also serves as a great utility for the PSNI in its collaboration on policy, serving as an advocate for effective and good policing. As well as this, there are administrative benefits to a fully functioning Board, whose partial absence, Martin admits, had made some routine matters “difficult, slow and cumbersome”.
Despite the various challenges emanating from Stormont’s collapse, many public services have sought to emulate the draft Programme for Government’s outcomes-based approach, something that was agreed prior to the fall of the institutions.
In the case of the PSNI, Martin describes the organisation’s support for such an approach. In terms of the PSNI’s work he says: “It’s important to keep an eye to the statistics to some extent, especially around specific types of crimes but we see the merit of a system that focusses on the needs of victims and of communities. The impact of public service as a whole system on individuals and communities is a much better way for the Government to assist communities in building capacity, enabling a greater sense of safety and providing a greater sense of justice and fairness. So, we are advocates of outcomes-based accountability and looking forward to developing the next iteration of the Policing Plan, with an outcomes-based focus.”
A key element of the latest Policing Plan and also one of three essential building blocks outlined by the Patten Commission in its recommendations for police reform in 1999 is the area of policing with the community.
Describing policing with the community as the “philosophy” of policing, Martin outlines its presence at the core of current and future policing. “Policing is not done to the public but with the public,” he states. Highlighting the place of policing with communities as a key element within the Peel Principles, nine general instructions issued to every new police officer from 1829 onwards, he adds: “Policing with the community is more than a phrase. There are essential elements focussing on service delivery, accountability and empowering officers to make decisions with local communities around local problems. It’s about partnerships and it’s about problem solving.”
On whether policing in the community is being adequately delivered, he asserts: “Policing is never the finished article, it is a human endeavour. The context in which we live is continually developing and adapting and policing must do the same to make sure that it keeps pace. However, I believe policing with the community is thriving.”
An example provided by Martin is around a growth in identifying and tackling public protection crime. These include the likes of sexual offences, domestic violence and child abuse etc. Whilst statistics show an increase in crime in some of these areas, extensive partner relationships with outreach groups and improved confidence in the police to deal with such crimes can also be highlighted as a reason for increased reporting.
He believes that the ability to utilise an outcomes-based approach has allowed for a more victim-centred approach, which has also helped improve relationships with the community and ultimately confidence in reporting.
However, he is aware that there is still room for improvement. Returning again to the impact of having no legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland for over two years, he points to a failure to legislate for a new domestic abuse offence of coercive and controlling behaviour to strengthen protection for victims and bring the region in line with the rest of the UK, which was pioneered by the former Justice Minister Claire Sugden.
“I am confident that they would have been implemented and working by now [had the Assembly not have collapsed], giving additional tools and powers to the police to try and keep victims of domestic violence safer and bringing offenders to justice. I think in terms of the overall sense of confidence in the system, society and public bodies have suffered with no Assembly.”
Another area in which Stormont’s absence is impacting is around the PSNI’s budget. Martin explains: “It is difficult. The financial year is two months away and we don’t know what the budget is. Normally by now we would have had a good understanding of the annual budget and would be engaging in significant financial planning along with the Department of Justice and Department of Finance. The lack of a government has impacted on that significantly.”
“The context in which we live is continually developing and adapting and policing must do the same to make sure that it keeps pace.”
An area in which the PSNI has been able to make significant progress in recent years is around digital transformation, both within and outside the organisation. Martin explains that a significant rise in cyber-dependent crime has forced the PSNI to upskill their approach to and understanding of this variety of crime.
A measure of progress is the now fully-operational Cyber Crime Centre in Belfast, which Martin believes places the PSNI at the forefront of EU law enforcement in tackling cyber crime.
“The centre is a sign of the chief constable’s commitment to being an adaptable and agile organisation”, says Martin, adding that investment has also been made in creating a number of locally based cyber support centres and training hundreds of officers as digital media investigators.
Policing in a digital era has also led to recognisable changes in policing operations. Where previously demand for policing was dominant in public spaces, the emergence of technology has meant for a greater demand on private space policing. This shift has meant that the PSNI has had to ensure visibility and accountability to the public was not lowered as a result.
In response, one method in which the PSNI has sought to successfully utilise technology is around digital communication. At the end of 2018, the organisation registered its one millionth follower across its social media platforms, a major milestone for the traditionally conservative organisation.
“We have made a conscious effort to involve ourselves organisationally in social media, seeking to utilise it to have conversations with the public, imparting information to the public but also to listen. The PSNI has traditionally been quite conservative in our approach to communication but we recognise the benefit of being agile to our environment.”
“I think in terms of the overall sense of confidence in the system, society and public bodies have suffered with no Assembly.”
However, Martin is quick to point out that recent developments are in the context that the PSNI “has always quietly led the way in terms of digital development”.
“There was massive digital transformation that sat alongside Patten but probably didn’t get the same level of recognition as some of the other organisational changes,” he explains. “There has been a huge level of investment in this area over the last 20 years and that has manifested itself into a situation where we now have officers out on patrol who can do a variety of remote functions without having to return to a station.”
Pointing to recent developments that equip officers to obtain and upload fingerprints at scene, engage with command and control systems, file missing person reports and access database information around individuals or vehicles, he states that the PSNI are continually seeking to be more innovative and to equip officers to be more effective and efficient. A prime example, he highlights, is that of body worn cameras, which not only allows for quicker collection of information by the PSNI but also more efficient sharing with partner agencies.
Innovation and efficiency are not just being implemented on the frontline but throughout the organisation, explains the deputy chief constable. In particular, there has been a push in introducing innovation into the PSNI’s administration systems. Last year, the PSNI became the first police force in the UK to introduce a fully-online firearms administration process and this year the organisation are looking towards enhanced automation and robotics to free up staff from routine and repetitive tasks, allowing them to engage in more value-added activities.
Innovation has also been key to the PSNI’s ambition to build on relationships and outcomes with its partners across the health, education and justice sectors. An example of an improved service offering through collaboration with a partner organisation is the introduction of a pilot scheme around full-time nurse-led custody health care. In 2018, custody nurse practitioners were introduced 24/7 at Musgrave Police Station in Belfast and early indications suggest that the success of the scheme could see it rolled out across other facilities in the near future.
Giving context for the introduction of the scheme, which sees the PSNI working with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, the Public Health Agency and both the Department of Health and the Department of Finance, Martin outlines that of the roughly 25,000 people the PSNI arrest and detain each year, around 18 per cent are flagged for self-harming warnings, while over 70 per cent have risk factors for suicide.
“This is a highly complex area of business where we have to meet the needs of the investigation but just as importantly ensure that health and safety is catered for. This collaboration has seen major strides in custody healthcare transformation and is undergoing evaluation with the prospect of rolling it out across Northern Ireland.”
Nurse-led care embedded in the custody suite offers immediate response to those in need, in contrast to previously existing doctor-led care, which had notable delays.
“Through this approach we can improve signposting, improve the management of healthcare within custody and indeed on return to the community as well,” says Martin. We think this is a much better way to achieve both our purpose around the investigation but also our dual purpose of ensuring that the healthcare needs of the detained person population are met.”
Improved health and wellbeing of staff has also been a major piece of work for the PSNI in recent years, with Martin stating his recognition that the distinctive competence of the organisation is in their staff. The PSNI have recently conducted two service-wide surveys, independently through Durham University, with a third one planned for 2019 around health, wellbeing, organisational fairness and engagement, amongst other things.
The results recognise an improvement in responses between the first and second survey but Martin believes that there is still work to do in this area. “On the basis of those surveys we have established an employee engagement and wellbeing group, led by senior officers, to show that we are responsive and listening to the workforce feedback.
“In the last year we have invested significantly in our occupational health and welfare services, establishing one of the best occupational health and welfare departments in any police service right across these islands,” he adds.
In fact, occupational health is one of four areas identified by chief constable George Hamilton for investment amidst shrinking budgets, including cyber crime; public protection and policing in the community.
One area in which the PSNI have received criticism in recent years is around the diversity of its workforce and in particular the representation of the Catholic community. Martin himself recently talked publicly about the potential to re-introduce 50:50 recruitment after it as revealed that just 20 per cent of last year’s graduates were from a Catholic background.
“Being representative of the community that you police is essential to retaining confidence and consent of that community,” he claims. “Clearly in Northern Ireland we had a particular difficulty in community background and this was recognised in the Patten Report with the recommendation of 50:50 recruitment. That measure saw the growth of Catholic representation in the service to 30 per cent when the then Secretary of State suspended those measures.
“Today, we actually sit at 32 per cent but recent recruitment campaigns have been more disappointing than we would have hoped for in terms of the ability to join and stay with the process to become attested constables. We have worked hard to understand why this is occurring and commissioned an independent report by Deloitte to identify those barriers.
“The report highlighted both internal and external barriers. In regard to internal barriers such as the length of the process and the location of the exam, we have sought to address those issues but it is clear that some people are still being put off. That beholds the police and many people across communities to work collectively to advocate for a career in policing within the Catholic community.”
A positive aspect of the research Martin identifies is the understanding that of those Catholic officers within the organisation that were surveyed, there was a feeling of a healthy internal environment.
The latest recruitment campaign also had a positive recognition of an increase in applications from ethnic minority backgrounds, something welcomed by Martin, who states that as well as a recognisable increase in the organisation’s female composition post-Patten, the organisation has engaged in a whole range of positive action with organisations across all dimensions of diversity.
This he states, can be recognised through the recently established Culture, Ethics and Diversity Board within the PSNI, chaired by the chief constable and which brings together representative groups throughout the PSNI to identify pathways of improvement.
Turning to how the unfolding of Brexit will impact on the PSNI’s service delivery going forward, Martin, who is leading the PSNI’s planning and preparation for Brexit, states that like all aspects of the public service, the PSNI are engaged in no deal planning. However, he adds: “Whilst we inevitably would see some additional resources going in and around border areas, we have no plans to increase infrastructure. We recognise the sensitivity of it, the strong feelings and we will be doing everything we can to have a minimalist additional policing presence as a consequence of EU exit.”
Describing it as “inconceivable” that border infrastructure could return to levels seen during the Troubles, he understands that even minor infringements such as traffic congestion would impact on border communities, adding: “Along with many other parts of public service we are watching and getting on with preparing for the range of possible outcomes.”
“Whilst we inevitably would see some additional resources going in and around border areas, we have no plans to increase infrastructure. We recognise the sensitivity of it, the strong feelings and we will be doing everything we can to have a minimalist additional policing presence as a consequence of EU exit.”
Recently the PSNI submitted a business case for £16.5 million in resources to recruit extra officers and staff and for new vehicles and other equipment in the context of Brexit, which was approved.
Martin says: “We will be thoughtful and proportionate in all that we do as we recognise the strength of feelings around the issue. Our job is to keep people safe and we will do what is necessary to do that and to tackle any criminality that may try to exploit a potential consequence.”
Concluding on the PSNI’s ambitions going forward, Martin states that generating public confidence will continue to be a priority: “If the police service was a business its share price would be public confidence. Being engaging, creating lines of communication to explain how and why we work and being responsive is our organic challenge. It’s our challenge today and will be into the future.
“On the business side it’s about continually striving to be more efficient and effective, exploiting technology where possible to innovate and to invest to save. Our sense of entrepreneurialism and creativeness has to be highly honed and this is something this current leadership team have been working very hard on over recent years.”