Born of The Troubles: Lessons in Trust and Legitimacy from the Police Service of Northern Ireland

John Murray


Trust and the establishment of legitimacy are essential to building strong relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Distrust of the police can lead to a lack of community involvement, an unwillingness to assist law enforcement with investigations, and in some cases, a perception of the police not as partners in the community, but as an occupying force. Suspicion of the police and questionable police conduct resulting in distrust can lead to outright resistance to community-wide policing efforts and call into question the integrity of this nation’s criminal justice system.

American policing has faced challenges in recent years regarding trust, legitimacy, and accountability. The police derive their authority from the people, so when the police are viewed as untrustworthy, the public’s view of police legitimacy is called into question. In light of the challenges facing American law enforcement, there are continuing calls for an examination of the American criminal justice system and questions of police reform. After a series of incidents that garnered national attention, in 2014, President Obama called for a task force to examine American policing. The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, hereafter referred to as the President’s Task Force Report, called for changes in American law enforcement, and police agencies around the country are facing greater scrutiny.

Does a need actually exist for American police reform, and if so, does a model exist from which it is possible to learn from outside the United States? The objective of this thesis is to determine whether reforms implemented in Northern Ireland following the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement are an applicable model for American police reform. Although significant political, cultural, and social differences exist between Northern Ireland and the United States, a model of successful police reform exists in The Report of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland or, as it is known colloquially, the Patten Report.

The Patten Report provides lessons that can be applied to American police reform and to conventional law enforcement agencies in the United States, such as the author’s own mid-sized agency, the Salinas Police Department. The Salinas Police Department faces many of the same challenges confronting policing nationally. Like many American police agencies, the Salinas Police Department is seeking ways to promote transparency, build trust, and collaborate with the community it serves.

  1. Methodology

The Patten Report and its impact on police legitimacy in Northern Ireland were examined using existing literature and case studies of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)’s implementation of recommendations. This thesis offers a qualitative analysis of the PSNI’s effort to build trust and legitimacy in disaffected Catholic and Protestant communities. A case study of the dynamics involved and the process of implementation was the product of a descriptive approach to the research, including

  • analysis of the Patten Report’s recommendations,
  • analysis of President’s Task Force Report, and
  • areas of commonality and divergence.

Application to American policing was explored using an appreciative inquiry approach. PSNI implementation was also evaluated for potential application to American policing.

  1. Literature

To structure the research effectively, it was necessary to understand the circumstances surrounding calls for American police reform and the history of police reform in Northern Ireland. A review of the existing literature on the topics provided an understanding of the social, political, and historic context in the United States and Northern Ireland. The literature revealed that although calls for police reform in both countries formed under unique circumstances, common elements to both are related to a loss of confidence in the police among disaffected communities and efforts to establish police legitimacy.

The period known as the Troubles, a 30-year armed conflict with deep roots in Irish history, was a key historical factor in the loss of confidence and trust in the police in Northern Ireland. It was important to recognize the history influencing the origins of the Troubles; however, this research focused on the loss of trust in the police and the historical influence of the Troubles on policing. The review examined some of the most relevant literature on police reform in Northern Ireland, the PSNI, its efforts to establish legitimacy in disaffected communities, and its relevance to U.S. law enforcement. Additional research examined sociological and general policing issues and their relevance to U.S. law enforcement.

  1. American Policing Issues

The national discourse surrounding law enforcement in recent years has placed American policing under greater scrutiny. A combination of factors, ranging from aggressive proactive policing efforts, to mainstream and social media focus on questionable police shootings, to government officials’ condemnation of police, may have resulted in questions of American police legitimacy. The author’s organization, the Salinas Police Department, is no exception and has faced similar challenges both internally and externally.

Activism, politicization, media sensationalism, increased use of social media, and genuine incidents of police misconduct may all be contributing factors to the public’s perception of the current state of American policing. The evidence shows a perception among the American public that change and progress in American law enforcement is necessary. This thesis proposes change is needed that emphasizes legitimacy and procedural justice with a focus on accountability and a shared responsibility with the public. A model for this type of police reform exists in Northern Ireland with the Patten Report.

  1. Patten Report

The Patten Report consists of two specific pillars of Northern Ireland police reform. The first pillar concerns traditional police reforms addressing organizational systems and management structures. These reforms are in line with established police reform practices: improving accountability, recruitment, training, management structures, procedural and policy changes, and organizational/cultural changes. The second pillar of reform addresses the more abstract reforms in terms of policing philosophy. The Patten Report proposes reforms in policing philosophy focused on policing, as not just the responsibility of law enforcement but also the entire community, a community–police partnership and shared responsibility. Within this framework, the Patten Report proposes reforms addressing accountability and transparency, civilian oversight, police training and human rights, recruitment, and the influence of cultural symbolism.

  1. Conclusion

Police reforms in Northern Ireland are widely viewed as an example of thoughtful, comprehensive, and sustainable democratic police reform. Although substantial differences exist between the United States and Northern Ireland, significant commonality also exists in the application of policing and police reform. Both the President’s Task Force Report and the Patten Report call for a shift from policing the community to policing with the community. The reports share a common philosophical thread as their foundation: an equal partnership between the community being served and law enforcement organizations performing a service based on trust and legitimacy. The Patten Report in conjunction with ongoing American policing initiatives, such as the President’s Task Force Report, can provide a framework for American police reform. This thesis provides recommendations for the Salinas Police Department and broader American law enforcement based on this case study.

The Patten Report provides a model for policy makers in the United States and in conventional American towns like Salinas, California. Application of lessons learned from Northern Ireland and the Patten Report will enhance American policing’s ability to build trust and deliver quality policing services in partnership with the community, and strengthen this nation’s homeland security.



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