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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 December, 2004, 07:35 GMT
Police reform at 'critical point'
Al Hutchinson said remarkable progress had been made
The man overseeing police reforms in Northern Ireland has said progress is at a "critical" point.

Oversight Commissioner Al Hutchinson said it was "most important" that all community and political groups back policing institutions.

In his latest report, he said the lack of acceptance was in danger of affecting the whole reform process.

Mr Hutchinson also noted the "slow and seemingly painful" pace of de-fortifying police stations.

'Significant progress'

The Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, also known as the Patten Commission, was set up after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to develop a framework for a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the whole community.

The Patten Commission said an independent person should be selected to oversee the implementation of its 175 recommendations.

Mr Hutchinson, an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 34 years, took over from Tom Constantine who held the position from May 2000 until his retirement at the end of 2003.

In his 12th report on the pace of change published on Tuesday, Mr Hutchinson said real and significant progress had been made.

He said: "A remarkable transformation in policing has taken place in a relatively short period since autumn 2001, and most structural, organisational and functional changes are firmly established."

There is a sense that it has lost momentum, and that there is a need to refresh the effort
Al Hutchinson
Oversight Commissioner

However, the commissioner pointed to a lack of progress in some areas.

He said: "The day-to-day reality that people are faced with in terms of their community's police station is not so different from the past: armoured gates and guard posts, high blast walls, bleak and dingy reception areas.

"If the community is ever to view its police service in a different light, then everything that the PSNI can do to put more police officers on the streets, and make its buildings as normal and inviting as possible, can only accelerate the shift in its relationship with the community."

With parts of the public still to back the PSNI, including republicans, he called for a "big new push".

Longer term

Attempts to bring in more Catholic officers have been replicated among civilian staff.

But the commissioner insisted: "They (the attempts) are not working as intended, and likely cannot work in the longer term.

"Our last statistics indicate that the percentage of Catholics among civilian staff had risen from only 12.3% in 1999 to 14.4% in 2004."

So to change the representation and bring more Roman Catholics into the civilian support staff side of the business, we would really need a severance programme
ACC Roy Toner

Any delays in recruiting qualified civilians is also hindering efforts to get more police on patrol, he said.

"This simply means that there are fewer police officers on the street today than there might have been," according to Mr Hutchinson.

Assistant Chief Constable Roy Toner said more police officers were being put out onto the streets.

"On the civilisation aspect I think Al has got it wrong here," he said.

"The difficulty is that we have 3,500 civilian support staff, who do a tremendous job in supporting our frontline policing.

"The difficulty is that there is no money for any more civilian support staff - we have reached our ceiling - that's it.

"There is no severance programme for civilian support staff, there is no early retirement programme for them, as there is for police officers.

He said it was unfortunate that "not all sections of the community are totally on board" in relation to police reform.

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