New research this week from Queen’s University has suggested that young people’s views on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) are driven by feelings of social inclusion and exclusion rather than sectarian loyalties.

The research was carried out by academics from the Schools of Psychology and Education and the Institute of Irish Studies and will be launched publicly at Queen’s later this morning (Friday).

Funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and carried out by researchers at Queen’s University, this two-year research project examined young people’s experiences with police officers and their perceptions of the force as fair and legitimate. Around 800 teenagers from across Northern Ireland, aged 14 to 16, were surveyed for the longitudinal study ‘Dynamics of Police Legitimacy Among Young People’ to examine their attitudes towards the PSNI. Those surveyed between March-May 2013 and September 2013-February 2014 were from a range of geographical areas, economic, community and ethnic backgrounds.

Respondents tended to have positive views of the police overall, with 15 per cent disagreeing that the police did a good job. While more positive than negative encounters with the police were documented, the most common reason (over 70 per cent) given for a negative encounter was the perception that police assumed the respondents were ‘up to no good’. Boys, those entitled to free school meals and those living in urban areas, reported the most negative encounters. By contrast, perceptions that police had abused their power, used discriminatory or abusive language were relatively low.

The survey found that identification with wider society was a key factor accounting for the quality of young people’s perceptions of the police over time. Meanwhile fewer than 50 per cent had heard of the Policing Board and the Police Ombudsman and only around 20 per cent knew that they were independent of the police. In addition, just 25 per cent believed the police could do what they liked without any accountability. There was also no evidence for a substantial gap between the views of Protestants and Catholics.

Dr Sam Pehrson from the School of Psychology at Queen’s was the lead researcher. He says young people’s views appear to be driven by feelings of inclusion rather than marginalisation. “Young people who feel a stronger sense of belonging, pride and investment in wider society were more likely to see the police as serving people like them, and as legitimate.

“Without denying the importance of fair and respectful police conduct, we suggest that there is a sense of disengagement and dis-identification with society that needs to be tackled. “Oppositional or disaffected views about the police reflect, in part, oppositional and disaffected views about wider society. Improving community safety depends on the co-operation of young people, which is likely to be undermined if they feel they are viewed with unreasonable suspicion both by the police and by the adult population in general,” he said.

The research will be launched publicly at Queen’s University’s Lanyon building at 10 o’clock this morning with guest speakers to include Caitríona Ruane MLA, a member of the NI Policing Board and Stewart Finn, Policy Advocacy Manager forPolicing at Include Youth.

Lauren Harte

Lauren Harte

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Lauren Harte