Baggott served with integrity but it is time for a change

Morning View
Morning View

If in 2009 the Policing Board had known the future, perhaps Matt Baggott would never have been appointed PSNI chief constable. Through no fault of his own, he also could hardly have been prepared for what was to come.

A proponent of ‘community policing’ where officers mix with locals, establishing a rapport with the communities they police, the former Leicestershire chief constable was chosen to move the PSNI’s focus from terrorism to preventing street-level crime.

As the first chief constable endorsed by Sinn Fein, a key element of that strategy was to build links with republican communities where police had long been unwelcome.

On that front Mr Baggott appeared to be making some progress when, just months into the job, dissident republicans critically injured PSNI officer Peadar Heffron, who lost both his legs in the brutal attack. Just over a year later, fellow Catholic officer Ronan Kerr was murdered in Omagh by dissidents.

Against such a backdrop of escalating dissident violence, and despite many successes which have hindered dissidents, the PSNI was forced to take precautions, reducing the ‘community policing’ contact with the public. Then in late 2012 the start of the flags protests saw loyalists increasingly in confrontation with the police, leading to deeply strained relations in parts of Belfast.

Throughout it all, in a job which has also seen him at points frustrated with Stormont’s leaders, the PSNI chief has shown determination to serve out his five-year term. Despite personal risk to himself, Mr Baggott has done that.

The outgoing chief constable has spoken of his deep Christian faith and how it motivates him to help others. Some have derided him for such idealism. But, where so many in society grasp after power for its own sake, it was refreshing to hear a man who genuinely seemed to want to use his power for good. Yesterday many immediately spoke of his integrity and honesty.

However, as circumstances change, so do the needs of the police service. After five years in which the PSNI has been forced to adapt its focus, it is time for a new chief constable.