PSNI lacks ‘credibility’ in South Armagh as report calls for urgent reforms

A major review of policing in South Armagh has found that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) lacks “credibility” in the area and has called for the closure of Crossmaglen police station.

Aug 31, 2021
By Website Editor
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

The report, which makes 50 recommendations for reform, also found that the perception of the risk to officers in the area was “distorted and inaccurate”.

The 172-page review, published on Tuesday (August 31), was sparked by a controversial photo of Northern Ireland’s police chief posing alongside officers with rifles.

Chief Constable Simon Byrne posted the tweet outside Crossmaglen police station in South Armagh on Christmas Day 2019.

As well as apologising, criticism of the photo led to Mr Byrne announcing a review of policing in the South Armagh area.

That review makes a series of wide-ranging recommendations that call for drastic change in how the region is policed over the next five years.

These include that consideration should be given to using of Irish in messages and signs, “exploring” the relocation of memorials to murdered police officers in stations, and the exploration of facilitating joint rather than parallel policing with An Garda Síochána to enable “hot pursuit between policing jurisdictions”.

Mr Byrne met representatives of the local community in South Armagh on Tuesday morning to brief them on the findings.

Crossmaglen and the wider South Armagh area witnessed widespread republican activity during the Troubles and the report is highly critical of current policing in the area and suggests that it no longer requires a heavily militarised police presence.

“Demand does not support the need for two stations in South Armagh,” the report found.

The review says the legacy of the Crossmaglen station, which was heavily fortified during the Troubles, “has an unhelpful impact internally on the mindset of officers and externally on the associations of the local community”.

“Evidence indicates that Crossmaglen police station does not provide a positive or effective policing presence and that service and visibility can be enhanced across Slieve Gullion without this physical infrastructure,” the report states.

Instead, Newtownhamilton police station would be rebranded as South Armagh police station.

The report also calls says that G36 assault rifles should no longer be routinely carried in South Armagh.

“Community consultation would strongly suggest that heavily armed police are not approachable and serve to reinforce stereotypes of a bygone era,” the review found.

Mr Byrne said on Tuesday that some of the findings make for “challenging” reading.

“They reflect that we have not made the progress in South Armagh that we have in other areas and that our approach to policing does not currently reflect the needs and priorities of the local community,” the chief constable said in a statement.

“A lot of work is already under way by local officers to make progress against these findings.”

More broadly, the report found that the culture within the PSNI, locally and more broadly, is one of the key problems with policing in South Armagh.

“South Armagh is consistently referred to as a ‘unique’ policing environment that justifies a security-laden policing response. The review suggests that it is not the environment that is unique but the policing model. This model and outlook is limiting progress towards a community focused policing service,” the report found.

The review found that policing in South Armagh can be seen as “unapproachable and intimidating” and calls “depressingly stark” the contrasting perspectives of the community and police officers on the area.

One section of the report was critical of the lack of engagement with community organisations and elected representatives.

In the future, it recommends that neighbourhood policing be placed “front and centre” in South Armagh, backed by “increased investment” in the area.

The review also recommends exploring relocating police memorials to “an agreed space in the station away from public locations and main thoroughfares”.

While it notes that this is a “sensitive” issue, the review points out that such memorials are viewed differently by various communities.

“Memorials commemorating the past continue to have a profound impact on the police culture of today.

“This is particularly relevant for South Armagh where the level of police loss was great.

“This review suggests that the station working environment in South Armagh has a negative impact on the mindset of police officers who work there, extending to those who have no lived experience of conflict,” the review says.

Elsewhere, the report notes that hi-vis police uniforms should be routinely worn for visibility and reassurance.

The report noted: “The predominant officer perspective was… risk-averse and demonstrated considerable resistance to the concept of wearing hi-visibility patrol uniform or visible patrolling methods.”

It quotes one local officer as saying: “It’s just the way it has always been in South Armagh. [We] don’t see the value. The public don’t care – they are more interested in the job you do. Bosses think hi-vis is more important than it is. There is more to service delivery than what you wear/look like.”

Another constable said: “It is very controversial to be in hi-vis, to go out on foot, even in Newtownhamilton. It is very RUC with full tactical patrols down the street hunkering down behind walls. Why?”

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI) said any new proposals for policing in South Armagh must place the safety of officers as a priority or any policing model envisaged will be doomed to failure.

PFNI chair Mark Lindsay said: “There are practical measures set out in this report where the emphasis is rightly placed on community policing.

“Policing cannot remain static and, to a large extent, this report acknowledges the considerable positive changes that have taken place in South Armagh, which have been delivered as a result of the commitment and professionalism of our colleagues working in that area.

“That said, our officers still face considerable challenges, more now from organised crime gangs than paramilitaries. Officers policing on behalf of the entire South Armagh community cannot be put at risk.

“They need proper protection to offset any threat that exists and cannot be exposed to unacceptable dangers because it is expedient for political reasons.

“Officer safety must come first. It has to be the top priority. Anything that threatens the safety of our officers deserves to be consigned to the bin.

“Police memorials which acknowledge the sacrifice of officers who paid the ultimate price must be handled properly and with sensitivity, with full consultation with the families of those who were murdered delivering policing across society.

“It is accepted that the current Crossmaglen station is not fit for purpose but in enhancing policing in the local community it would be more beneficial to build a new and modern police station on that site. That would be the most sensible solution if everyone was being serious about bringing effective community policing to the area.

“As for where and how vehicle checkpoints are carried out, the over-riding issue here should be driven by policing priorities and community protection and not ‘legacy issues.’

“We have enjoyed close working relationships with An Garda Síochána and strengthening lines of communications, which are already first class, has to be welcomed. Anything that goes beyond that is for the governments and political parties to consider.

“We have been consulted at local level about all of this but, frankly, this report in its totality was delivered as a fait accompli without full consultation where our corporate views could have been taken on board.”

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