Lessons for U.S. police from an unexpected place – Northern Ireland

March 20, 2015
Police officers patrol a street in Ferguson

Police officers patrol a street in Ferguson, Missouri, August 11, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

In June 2001, as Northern Ireland sought to heal decades of painful and violent divisions, government officials dissolved the local police force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The constabulary was overwhelmingly Protestant in a province almost evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants. It policed the Catholic community, which was then closely associated with the Irish Republican Army’s ferociously violent campaign against British rule in the north.

The day the Ulster constabulary passed into history, it was replaced by a new agency called the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Its new commander, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, spoke of the opportunity to create “a culture where equality for all is offered and where respect for cultural diversity and for individual dignity is the order of the day.”

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An Ógra Shinn Féin propaganda sticker calling for disbanding of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

The new force still included former Royal Ulster Constabulary constables, but heavy recruitment of Catholics began immediately. With new training and a makeover that included changes in everything from attitude to uniforms, Flanagan created a new department that was far more representative of the general local population. The force is now roughly 30 percent Catholic and has won the respect of many of the old regime’s harshest critics.

If this kind of turnaround can happen in Northern Ireland, it can happen in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Justice Department’s highly critical report on Ferguson’s police force has led to calls for disbanding the city’s department or direct federal oversight of it in the form of a consent decree.

There is no shortage of precedent for disbanding the department. Local police departments in the United States have been dissolved for one reason or another since the middle of the 19th century. The successful transition in Northern Ireland, however, offers the most hope for progress. As bad as police-community relations are in Ferguson, they were far worse in war-torn Northern Ireland a generation ago.

The Justice Department report found evidence of institutional racism in Ferguson’s overwhelmingly white police department. African-Americans, who make up nearly 70 percent of the city’s population, were far more likely than whites to be stopped when driving or ticketed for minor offenses. The report also criticized the department for using unreasonable force, with African-Americans victimized in disproportionate numbers.

Police officers keep watch while demonstrators protest the death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson

Police officers keep watch while demonstrators protest the death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 12, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Just as troubling, the report found that Ferguson’s police force and court system viewed the mostly African-Americans community as a source of revenue. The more summons police handed out, the more the city was able to collect in fines. This picture of racism, brutality and corruption has made it all but inevitable that the federal government will intervene in Ferguson, perhaps disbanding the current department and creating a new one, following the Northern Ireland model.

Ferguson would thus become the latest American city to resolve its policing problems by starting over from scratch.

In the decade before the Civil War, state officials in New York concluded that New York City’s police force was irredeemable. The city’s mayor, Fernando Wood, exerted tremendous control over the department’s hiring practices, leading to charges of patronage and cronyism. It didn’t help that Wood seemed to favor Irish immigrants at a time of rampant nativism.

The state legislature disbanded the city’s Municipal Police in 1857 and replaced it with a new agency, the Metropolitan police force, which was accountable to the governor, not the mayor. But members of the Municipal force refused to disband, and they still had Wood’s support. Both forces patrolled the city’s streets until the state ordered its police force, the Metropolitans, to arrest the mayor.

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An illustration of fighting at City Hall between Municipal and Metropolitan police officers during the Police Riot of 1857 from “Recollections of a New York Chief of Police” (1887) by George W. Walling. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

The result was a civil disturbance without precedent in U.S. history, a police-on-police riot on the steps of City Hall, as the Metropolitans attempted to take the mayor into custody. The Municipals rallied to prevent the arrest, leading to a half-hour of skull cracking that left 50 officers injured.

The violence ended only when National Guard troops arrived. They allowed the Metropolitans to proceed with their arrest warrant for the mayor. The Municipals were dissolved several weeks later.

Other U.S. police departments have been disbanded for reasons ranging from corruption to racism to labor-management strife.

A police strike in Boston in 1919, for example, led to the virtual dismantling of the city police force. With the approval of Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, the city’s police commissioner fired 1,100 striking cops and replaced them with jobless veterans of World War One.

Big-city police departments from Chicago to New York have endured scandals involving corruption, racism and brutality. But reform, not dissolution, has been the preferred method of change.

That was not true in Jennings, Missouri, several years ago, when city officials decided that institutional racism was so bad that they had no choice but to start over. Among the officers fired from that disbanded force was Darren Wilson, who found a new job in Ferguson. He was the officer who fired the shots that killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, last summer.

Other police forces have also been disbanded. Camden, New Jersey, was one of the most crime-ridden U.S. cities as recently as 2012, with a sky-high murder rate. Gang members and drug dealers operated openly. The city’s residents knew that the simple act of venturing outside was a calculated risk. Its police department was plagued by corruption, with several officers charged with fabricating evidence in drug cases.

Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri

Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The city just gave up. In 2012, it announced that the department would be disbanded and its 250 officers fired. A new countywide police department took over in 2013. The result has been a 22 percent drop in violent crime, though Camden remains a dangerous place.

Disbanding an entire police department is a drastic measure, however. Only a small-sized city like Camden (population, 77,000) or Ferguson (population 21,000) can even consider it.

Another remedy could come in the form of federal oversight of reforms. The Los Angeles Police Department entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department in 2001  after many of its officers were implicated in evidence tampering and brutality charges. The department finally emerged from federal supervision in May 2013 after Washington officials were satisfied that the Los Angeles police had implemented safeguards against corruption and police abuse of power.

As New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, who was named police chief in Los Angeles in 2002 and served until 2009, and others have stressed, cops cannot do their jobs properly without the cooperation and the support of the communities they police.

Bratton has frequently cited a principle established by Sir Robert Peel, the 19th-century English statesman who established London’s Metropolitan Police Service. Peel, Bratton has noted, insisted that the “ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”

Nobody would ever suggest that police officers put popularity ahead of duty. The business of enforcing the law can be, and perhaps ought to be, unpopular at times.

But when the bond between a community and its police force is broken, history shows that authorities often have no choice but to start from scratch. It requires more than a name change or a shakeup in command structure.

In Northern Ireland, officials had to overcome decades of intense suspicion between the province’s Catholics and the police to create an effective and admired police force. That suspicion would have remained intact, with grievous consequences for peace-makers, if only the name of the agency changed.

Restoring public support for the police in Ferguson will likely require similar drastic action. Officials there ought to study the principles of Peel and Flanagan. For they can achieve the public approval Peel spoke of only if, as Flanagan pointed out, they seek to ensure the dignity and respect of the community they serve.

One comment

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Mayor Knowles III of Fergusan , Missouri doesn’t want to reform his police.
They’re doing exactly what he asked them to do and he’s pretty happy about that.
He truely believes in the slogan “The beatings will continue until moral improves” and he doesn’t believe that was meant as a joke.

Posted by koconnor100 | Report as abusive