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June 5, 2020

Uncomfortable Conversations

Uncomfortable Conversations
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What does a process of institutional police reform look like? How do you build trust after years of distrust, resentment, and structural inequalities?

This is a bonus episode that I’m running in light of the ongoing protests taking place this week in the US and around the world, which have included widespread calls for police reform.

For this episode, I reached out to Roger McCallum in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who describes himself as a ‘former police person’ now engaged in peacebuilding and human rights. Roger was a police officer in Northern Ireland for 26 years, and most of that time was during the Troubles, the violent conflict that divided Northern Ireland for decades. Police played a significant role in the conflict; as an institution of the British state, they were seen as targeting Catholic and Nationalist communities, and they were also the frequent target of IRA violence.

As a result, police reform was a major part of Northern Ireland’s peace process, and Roger was a part of that too. He helped facilitate the Patten Commission, an independent, international commission that suggested 175 reforms to reshape the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Roger now advises police services around the world, so I was curious to speak with him to hear about his personal journey in Northern Ireland from a being a police commander during an armed conflict to doing international police reform, and also hear his insights on what’s happening in the US. Neither I nor Roger are suggesting that the lessons from NI are a direct fit for the US; they are different contexts with different histories and structural inequalities, and there are many other voices speaking more eloquently on those topics right now.

But one thing that resonated with me in this conversation is Roger’s emphasis on the need for uncomfortable conversations. We both recognise the need for real policy and institutional changes, and we talk about those, too. But Roger has seen that making those policy changes stick requires tough work at the interpersonal level also, and that means engaging in difficult conversations.