THERE’S little doubt that in some quarters the knives are out for new Chief Constable John Boutcher before he’s had time to warm his seat. Against that background, the coming weeks and months will be crucial not only in informing us whether he’s up to the extraordinary challenges he faces, but – more importantly – whether all the people will finally get the police service they deserve.

Mr Boutcher’s brief opening remarks were not encouraging. Whether he wrote them himself or whether they were handed to him is immaterial – he is long enough in policing to understand that the job is all about the public that his officers serve. And yet he spoke almost entirely – and almost entirely glowingly – about the PSNI. He vowed to support his “workforce”, praised them for their “immense hard work” and said he was “proud” of them and “alive to the concerns of officers and staff”.

That a new head of policing would go to such lengths to reassure his officers is perhaps understandable given that the accepted wisdom is that his predecessor Simon Byrne had lost the confidence of the rank and file. But the reassurance of officers is absolutely secondary to the job of the police, which is to serve the public. His first remarks, and indeed his final remarks, should have been addressed to the people for whom he works, not to the people who work for him. Those remarks should have stressed the need to restore the confidence of the ordinary man and woman in a police service which has haemorrhaged trust in the past few years amidst a deluge of self-made operational controversies and PR disasters. 

It is correct to say that Mr Boutcher cannot succeed in the Herculean task that lies ahead without bringing his officers along with him, but that is a policing priority – it is not a mission statement. Of course Mr Boutcher was right to address the men and women he is now in charge of, but to promote their needs and concerns ahead of those whom the PSNI exists to protect and serve is a worrying suggestion that his tenure might be a case of plus ça change in terms of corporate mindset.

The failure to prioritise the public in his first appearance as the new Chief Constable and the haste to reassure officers is part of the same mentality that has driven every Chief Constable since the RUC was kicked to the kerb: to protect and serve a force discredited in the eyes of the nationalist community rather than protect and serve the people. At every turn, the instinct of those at the top of the PSNI since its inception has been to block efforts by victims to get to the truth of the RUC’s role in murder and collusion. There can be no greater sin in the field of policing than for officers to victimise those they are tasked with serving. But not only is it a simple statement of recorded fact that the RUC did just that, it’s also the case that the PSNI has not been found wanting when it comes to protecting the interests of former colleagues.

That must end, Mr Boutcher.