The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown rules brought police into conflict with normally law-abiding citizens, the head of the representative body for officers has said.
Restrictions imposed by the Stormont Executive to cut social contacts in a bid to slow the spread of the virus were left for police to enforce.
While the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said they adopted an approach of encouraging and explaining in a bid to make the public comply, there was also enforcement with fines handed out to those who broke the rules.
The PSNI were criticised by some for not intervening when large crowds gathered in west Belfast despite lockdown rules for the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey.
Later, two officers were criticised after making an arrest at a commemoration on the Ormeau Road for the Sean Graham bookmakers shootings.
The PSNI was also criticised for handing out fines at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson found that claims the handling of the event amounted to unfairness and discrimination were justified and, while not intentional, had damaged confidence in policing among some within the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland
Police Federation chairman Mark Lindsay said officers got no support from the Stormont Executive who set the rules as they tried to enforce them.
“I think this brings us into conflict with people who would normally be law-abiding citizens, I think it has not been a good exercise for policing at all,” he told the PA news agency.
“If we look at a lot of the high-profile events for which policing has been quite heavily criticised, Black Lives Matter, the Storey funeral, even Ormeau, were all related to the Covid crisis and police trying to do the right thing around Covid.
“The difficulty is we’re being asked on one hand to enforce by an Executive and by the politicians in that Executive, but when we actually do our jobs and work through the regulations we get absolutely no support from them, and I think that was very, very evident over all of those incidents I just mentioned.
“For the officer on the ground, it’s always been about engagement and explaining the need for it, which the vast majority of people get, and I don’t think there has ever been any misunderstanding if it comes to having to enforce something as a last resort, yes, of course we will, that’s part of the role of policing.
“But to expect police to wade into the middle of every breach is simply unrealistic and it does policing no good whatsoever.
“It’s really disappointed me that Stormont haven’t thought outside the box of how they could do this, such as additional wardens, council staff or people working for the health department checking on the regulation. That could have been done at quite minimal cost and taken some pressure off police.”
Mr Lindsay said this was also exasperated by police officers not being prioritised for Covid-19 vaccines.
“Putting us into situations which are totally out of our control which you can’t put any mitigation into, close contact with people, and our Executive just say, ‘suck it up’,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Policing Board was told the Police Service for Northern Ireland could lose 900 officers over the next three years due to a budget shortfall.
Mr Lindsay said the potential cut goes deeper because modern policing is about “more than just enforcement”.
“It covers almost every element of the fabric of our lives, we have over 2,000 calls last year where police took the place of ambulances, we intervened with vulnerable people, we looked for missing persons, we do a lot more than just investigating crime or dealing with violence,” he said.
“There was no surprise for officers on the ground because they hadn’t seen much support for policing over the past 15-20 years.
“But what you can’t take away is the need for visibility, the need for police officers to respond to people whenever they need help, and that reassurance that visible policing gives.”
He said there is a struggle to have a meaningful community policing model as envisaged in the Patten Report 20 years ago due to officer numbers.
Meanwhile, asked for his thoughts on Chief Constable Simon Byrne, Mr Lindsay said the PSNI boss engages with frontline officers, which he said is appreciated.
He said Mr Byrne’s engagement with officers in Crossmaglen on Christmas Day last year was almost unprecedented, but said it turned into a “PR disaster” after he was photographed with officers holding rifles.
“I think sometimes communication is wanting, things happen sometimes for very well thought out reasons but I think the way it is portrayed either internally or externally in the past hasn’t been the best,” he said.
“The chief is halfway through his term now, I think we all in policing suffered from the poisonous political environment we are in, I think he has suffered more than most and some of his own making.”