What Northern Ireland Can Teach Us About Police-Community Relations

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Police at a Loyalist protest in Belfast, 2013. Photo by Joshua Hayes via Flickr


In the last two years, the name “Garner” has become a key word in debates on the police use of force against people of color because of its association with Eric Garner, the African-American man from Staten Island, NY who died after being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer.

Yet a three-decade-old Supreme Court ruling involving another Garner, in Tennessee vs. Garner, should have made that debate unnecessary. In that case, the Court ruled that “deadly force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

Yasemin Irvin-Erickson

Yasemin Irvin-Erickson

Despite this ruling, and predecessor and successor cases with similar rulings, high-profile cases of police use of excessive force continue to generate questions about the prevalence and constitutional basis for the use of force by law enforcement.  The most recent contribution came from the  U.S. Department of Civil Rights Division’s report on Baltimore City Police Department’s practice of conduct.

However, until very recently, the study of the causes of police use of excessive force has been scarce and devoid of theory.

A systematic review of the evidence by Christopher J. Harris of the University of Massachussetts concludes  that “situational factors have the most substantive impact on police use of improper force within police-citizen encounters, and that it is more likely to be employed by young, inexperienced, male officers across multiple encounters.”

Douglas Irvin-Erickson, S-CAR. Photo by Creative Services/George Mason University

Douglas Irvin-Erickson, S-CAR. Photo by Creative Services/George Mason University

The review goes on to say that, “Still, victims of improper force appear more likely to be those who are antagonistic, intoxicated, lower class, or black.”

This current evidence then begs the question: Why do  two behavioral factors (being antagonistic and being intoxicated)  fall into the same significance category as social identity and class? The fact that social identity (in this case being black) is a determinant of increased likelihood of violent confrontations between the police and the citizens of communities they serve indicates the racial conflict that is deeply affects  across American society.

The field of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (CAR), with its rich theoretical and empirical literature on policing and violence in international contexts, can offer a new perspective to the criminological study of use of force, and the response to it. What distinguishes CAR approaches is that the field recognizes that the police are often viewed by people as a party to the conflict.

The twin issues of police use of improper force and the use of force against the police is not likely to be resolved by just addressing the perceptions of the immediate actors in a violent confrontation. Rather, the answer is to change the structural conditions of the conflict that give rise to those perceptions.

CAR scholars have studied Northern Ireland through this lens.

Although different in structure and context, there are important lessons to be learned. From the late 1960s to the 1990s, more than 3,000 people were killed in Northern Ireland in a protracted conflict known as The Troubles. A Study by David H. Bayley of  the School of Criminal Justice at State University of New York (Albany) concluded that the level of violence committed by and against the police was such that “public opinion throughout the world regarded Northern Ireland as a benighted backwater of prejudice and violence, a place to be lumped with Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Sri Lanka.”

The police in Northern Ireland were  perceived by minority Catholics as the armed faction of Unionism, with their legitimacy eroded further by “flawed intelligence [that] resulted in the widespread round-up of suspects.” At the height of The Troubles, INTERPOL declared that Northern Ireland was the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer.

In response, Northern Ireland moved forward with what Prof. Bayley called  the “most complex and dramatic changes ever attempted” in the history of policing. The Independent Commission on Northern Ireland issued a report with more than 170 recommendations on police reform, of which 140 were implemented. The reforms sought to align all aspects of police practices with international standards of human rights, to make police fully accountable to external auditors, and to privilege the role of public needs expressed through forums in shaping policy, as a way of partnering with those who are policed.

The important lesson for the U.S. today is not what these reforms were, but rather how the reforms came about.

Experts in policing, criminal justice, conflict resolution, and peace studies are close to unanimous in their agreement that the most crucial factor in bringing police reform in Northern Ireland was the inclusion of external third parties to the conflict—what an article in the International Journal of Policing dedscribed as an effort  “to mediate the relationship between internal strategy making processes and the external context.”

The external parties, however, had to rely on the communities committing violence against the police to support the reform process. And, at the same time, they had to rely on the leadership of the police to wield enough power to force difficult changes upon a force that felt besieged. (After all, police stations at the time resembled military bunkers, surrounded by blast gates, barbed wire, and guard towers to protect police from military-style attacks.)

This meant that the most crucial element for police reform was the agreement between the parties in conflict that, first, there was in fact a conflict.

Secondly, they had to agree that the violence must  stop—because there was more to be gained by all parties by giving up retaliatory cycles of violence. Recent scholarship on police reforms in post-genocide Bosnia-Herzegovina have arrived at similar conclusions.

And a recent study on police reforms in peace agreements over the last of 35 years found those “that stipulate political provisions for peace reform” in matters such as human rights, accountability, the composition of the police force, and external monitoring have a higher survival probability than peace agreements that did not ground police reforms within political provisions.

The implication seems clear.  Conflict experts who study policing agree  that the key to reform is not fashioning specific technical reforms to police practices, but rather the social and political processes necessary for getting the police and those using violence against the police to agree to resolve their conflicts and change their behavior mutually.

Resolving the current impasse in the U.S., will require a national level dialogue about the nature and sources of grievances and mistrust in communities.

Yasemin Irvin-Erickson is a researcher at Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. Douglas Irvin-Erickson is Assistant Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University. Readers’ comments are welcome.

One thought on “What Northern Ireland Can Teach Us About Police-Community Relations

  1. I am not sure we can draw that many parallels between Northern Ireland and the U.S. The RUC was 95% Protestant and was quite anti-Catholic. The Provisional IRA, Real IRA, and Continuity IRA were also important factors as well.

    Much of the violence waned because of weariness on both sides. Also, the IRA bombed some inappropriate targets and lost significant Catholic support. And the U.S. was significant in helping resolve the issues.

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