In a recent issue of PERF Trending, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler discussed how Civilian Review Boards have sometimes proved disappointing to advocates of reforms in policing, and how some jurisdictions are experimenting with other mechanisms for ensuring accountability.

In today’s Critical Issues Report, Wexler interviews two international policing experts who have experience creating accountability systems in one of the most difficult policing environments in modern history:  creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001 to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as part of the Good Friday Agreement reforms.

Robert N. Peirce is an internationally recognized policing consultant who served as head of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland.  He served as a top aide to three British Foreign Secretaries, was British Consul General in Los Angeles, and has worked with police departments in the United States and around the world.

Kathy O’Toole served with Peirce and others on the Patten Commission, which created the recommendations for reforming policing in Northern Ireland.  She also has served as Commissioner of the Boston Police Department, Chief of Police in Seattle, Secretary of Public Safety for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and other positions.

Mr. Peirce and Chief O’Toole discussed three basic types of oversight bodies for police agencies:

  • The Ombudsman model, in which an agency independent of the police department receives and investigates complaints about officers or police actions, and may also independently launch investigations of possible misconduct.
  • The Inspectorate model, in which policing experts evaluate policies, practices, training, and organizational systems of a police agency and recommend systemic improvements, as opposed to investigations of individual officers.
  • Community Boards that provide a mechanism for community members to work with police department leaders and ensure that there will be community input on a wide range of issues.


Chuck Wexler Bob, can you tell us about the ombudsman model in Northern Ireland and how it came about?

Bob Peirce:  It’s called the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, and it was created 20 years ago. It came about following the report that I worked on with Chris Patten and Kathy O’Toole and others, known as the Patten report, which was the blueprint for reform of the Northern Ireland policing arrangements following the peace agreement there in 1998.

After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, there were one or two major issues that were not resolved by the politicians, and the thorniest issue of all was policing. The only thing they could agree on was to give the issue to an independent Commission. Chris Patten, who is now in the House of Lords, had just finished being governor of Hong Kong.  He was independent politically, was available, and was asked to chair the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, which consisted of a number of people agreed upon by the British and Irish sides, including Kathy O’Toole and others. I was basically the chief executive of that Commission. 

Our terms of reference were essentially to look at every aspect of policing and recommend new arrangements. The Police Department in Northern Ireland at that time, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was, I would say, very well respected in policing circles around the world, but was politically very divisive within Northern Ireland. It was not in its composition very representative, to put it mildly, of the population of Northern Ireland. It was only 8% Catholic, in a population that by that time was something like 46% Catholic. And more to the point, the nationalist community, most of whom are Catholic, those who fervently believe in a united Ireland, were somewhat intimidated from joining the police. They would regard the police, many of them, as essentially a representative of the other half of the community, and at the most extreme levels they would regard it as an occupying force. There were whole areas of Northern Ireland where people would not dream of joining the police.

There were many public order problems in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and very often the police would literally be stuck in the middle. And they suffered for it. More than 300 officers were killed during the Troubles.

So there was a problem, both of the legitimacy of the police, and also a serious problem for the police in that they couldn’t get on with what you might describe as normal policing, because there was a huge security threat against them.  Many of them were assassinated when they were off-duty. And so they had to have their weapons with them at all times. They had to operate often from armored cars. Police stations look like barracks. There were roadblocks all over Northern Ireland. A lot of streets were closed down, walled off. It did look in many ways like a war zone.

So it was policing in a very challenged security environment, and we had to come in and look ahead to what policing in a more peaceful society would look like, recognizing that it wasn’t going to become totally peaceful overnight. And it isn’t even now; they still have a level of security concerns which you would not get in other parts of the United Kingdom, or indeed in the Republic of Ireland.

But it is very different today from the way it was.  Our policing report addressed every aspect of policing, including the way that they are overseen, the various oversight bodies. The PSNI is probably the police department in the world with the most oversight, which can be rather challenging for police chiefs. But I’ve never heard a Northern Ireland police chief express resentment over the amount of oversight that they have. They see the purpose of it, and I think the ombudsman is an important part of that.

Wexler: What is the role of the Ombudsman?

Bob Peirce:  Obviously there were a lot of complaints about the police in Northern Ireland. Not that they were an unprofessional department; in many ways they’re a very admirable department. But they were not seen as a department that served all parts of the Northern Island community. They were seen as politically toxic; they were seen as unfair to the minority community.

So what we needed was a complaints mechanism that was separate from the police, that was independent. People do not trust police investigating themselves in many communities, and particularly in Northern Ireland.

We needed an entity that could command the confidence of the community – and also, I would say, the confidence of the police. This is something that successive holders of the Ombudsman’s office have said to me and others. The trick is that they must command the confidence of both the police and the community.

They have to be independent. They have to have their own budget. And they have to receive all public complaints against the police. That’s not to say they necessarily investigate every complaint. They might hand many of them back to the police and say, “This is a performance management issue; you deal with it, and tell us what you’ve done.” They also need to be as transparent as possible in what they do.  

I should note that the Ombudsman’s office is a very substantial organization; it has about 150 staff members and a budget of about $12 million. Originally the Ombudsman investigators were cops recruited from outside Northern Ireland. But now, over the years they’ve recruited their own investigators out of universities and they train them.

Wexler:   What is the scope of the Ombudsman?

Bob Peirce:    No area of police activity is outside their authority. It could be financial impropriety, it could be bad treatment of individuals, it’s any incident that the public complain about.

The Ombudsman is free to make recommendations about policy and practice. It’s not just looking for individual blame. It can also be, “What went wrong here, and where is the fault?” They go where the truth takes them.

The Ombudsman’s office in Northern Ireland also has the power to initiate investigations. It’s not purely responsive, which I think is an important element in its independence.

Wexler: Let’s turn it over to Kathy now.  Kathy, as an American who also worked in Ireland and Northern Ireland, what is your assessment of oversight of policing in Northern Ireland and how would it fit into American policing?

Chief O’Toole:   When I was appointed to the Patten Commission in 1998-99, I was really struck by the extent of and history of external oversight of police in the UK.  For instance, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary dates back to the 1800s, and certainly they’ve evolved those structures over the course of many years.

In Northern Ireland, I think it’s important to note that the Ombudsman is just one component of a tripartite system in Northern Ireland. They also have a Northern Ireland Policing Board that consists of members of the assembly plus other civilians from the community.

And they were  also subject to inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. In recent years they’ve created a separate office of Criminal Justice Inspection in Northern Ireland that has assumed that responsibility.

So again, it’s a tripartite system. It has the Ombudsman that investigates complaints against police in serious cases of wrongdoing. It has the Policing Board, and it has the Inspectorate.

I think that if people are going to look to create oversight bodies here in the US, they should do it in a very thoughtful way and learn from some of the experiences elsewhere.

Wexler:  How are these models different from what we have in the United States?

Chief O’Toole:   Well, I’ve never seen two models in the United States that are the same. Each jurisdiction seems to have its own unique characteristics when it comes to oversight in the U.S., and rightfully so. It should be the local community members and leaders who determine what structures will work in their jurisdiction.

The structures that have emerged in Seattle are very similar to those in Northern Ireland. There’s an independent Office of Police Accountability, which conducts all of the investigations of serious police wrongdoing in Seattle. It’s run by an independent director and executive staff.  And Seattle in 2018 established an Office of Inspector General to look at systemic issues and identify weaknesses that can be addressed. I think that the Seattle Police Department is at the leading edge in terms of innovation. In Seattle they also created a Community Policing Commission. Sadly, I think that the commission from time to time has failed to build bridges to the community. I think some of them have looked at their roles as being more activist than community bridge-builders.

That’s why I think a lot of thought has to go into establishing the right structures – and ensuring that you get the right people in these roles. Across the board, whether it’s an inspectorate or an ombudsman or a community policing commission, you need to have people with no agendas but to get it right.  You need to have honest brokers who all work collectively to promote a model with integrity, a model that will really promote community trust and police legitimacy.

Wexler:   When I talk to Sam Walker, who’s one of the real experts on oversight, he recommends a model that looks at organizational and policy issues.

Chief O’Toole:    Yes, that’s the Inspectorate, Chuck. That’s the role that HMIC plays in the UK, and the role I played as Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate in Ireland.  It’s the type of model that goes back nearly 200 years in the UK.  But we haven’t seen many models similar to that here in the U.S.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.