“Strikingly and Stubbornly High”: Investigating the Paradox of Public Confidence in the Irish Police

Published date01 February 2023
Date01 February 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 39(1) 38 –57
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862221138672
“Strikingly and Stubbornly
High”: Investigating the
Paradox of Public Confidence
in the Irish Police
Claire Hamilton1 and Lynsey Black1
While levels of public confidence in the police have declined internationally, the
Republic of Ireland appears to have bucked this trend with confidence levels that
remain “strikingly and stubbornly high.” This situation appears all the more puzzling
given the wave of scandals to have hit the force in recent decades, ranging from police
corruption in Donegal in the late 1990s to a more recent whistleblower scandal that
has resulted in the resignation of a slew of Ministers and high-ranking officials. Such
developments beg important questions as to the factors sustaining public confidence
over this tumultuous period. Drawing on international and domestic data, this article
aims to probe this “paradox” of public confidence in the Irish police. It argues that
although confidence is high, there is more to the dynamics of confidence in the police
in Ireland than this initial appraisal suggests. Indeed, it advances the Irish case as an
illustration both of the dimensionality of the public confidence concept and of the
complexity of the pathways to trust in the police.
police, trust, confidence, Ireland, procedural justice
As a “core function” of the state, it is essential that the public feel confident in the
police. The police are symbols of state authority (Bittner, 1980), and, as such, trust in
1Maynooth University, Ireland
Corresponding Author:
Claire Hamilton, School of Law and Criminology, New House, Maynooth University, Maynooth, County
Kildare W23 F2K8, Ireland.
Email: claire.hamilton@mu.ie
1138672CCJXXX10.1177/10439862221138672Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeHamilton and Black
Hamilton and Black 39
the police reflects the legitimacy of the state as a whole, with a lack of confidence
interpreted by some as a problematic democratic deficit (Gilling, 2010). Confidence in
the police is also essential to their effective functioning as it facilitates greater report-
ing of crime, higher levels of cooperation and compliance, and greater effectiveness
and efficiency (Jackson & Bradford, 2010; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). In short, “public
trust makes the life of a police officer considerably easier” (Schaap, 2021, p. 28).
Moreover, as noted by Hough et al. (2013, p. 43), “encounters with the most public-
facing element of the CJS [criminal justice system]—the police—can inform ideas
about other elements of the system (especially the courts and prisons), and about its
fairness as a whole” (see also Hamilton & Black, 2019; Hough & Roberts, 2004;
Indermaur & Roberts, 2009).
Despite the vaunted importance of confidence or trust in the police, the data appear
to show a decline in these measures in certain Western jurisdictions dating from at
least the 1980s. In England and Wales, for example, British Crime Survey/Crime
Survey of England and Wales data show a pattern of decline in confidence in police
from 1984 to 2000, consistent with trends in relation to the criminal justice system
more broadly (Bradford, 2011; Bradford et al., 2009a; Hough, 2003; Jansson, 2008).
Reiner (2000) uses the marked decline between 1984 and 2000 in those rating their
local police as “very good” as support for the idea that the “haemorrhage” in support
for the police that started in the 1960s continued right up to the turn of the century. In
his view, successive scandals and a failure to evolve with society have resulted in a
police service that is now “beyond legitimation” (Reiner, 2010, p. 96). This decline in
confidence in the police corresponds with World Values Survey data showing that in
many countries confidence in the wider justice system fell considerably in the period
from the early 1980s to the early years of the new century (Van de Walle & Raine,
2008). Inglehart (1997) attributes this to a general decline in respect for authority, hav-
ing an impact on citizens’ attitudes toward the police and justice system, but also other
institutions such as the church or army. While subsequent decades have seen small but
significant increases in confidence levels, concerns about waning confidence in the
police persist such that it has now become a “fully fledged policy domain” (Tonry,
2007). Schaap (2020) also raises the valid point about the need for the police to achieve
a “re-legitimation” (Reiner, 2010, p. 99) in the very challenging conditions in which
police now operate, which include, inter alia, demands to respond to technological
developments and a changed media landscape. Such imperatives have given rise to
extensive literature on the drivers of police legitimacy and related concepts such as
confidence/trust, including an explosion of research on the impact of procedural jus-
tice (the quality of decision-making procedures and fairness in the way citizens are
treated by police) on levels of confidence/trust in law enforcement officials (Tankebe,
2008; Tyler, 2003; Tyler et al., 2007).
Against this background, the case of Ireland presents as a useful puzzle. In seeming
contrast to our nearest neighbors in the United Kingdom, Irish rates of confidence in
the police have, in the words of one leading commentator, remained “strikingly and
stubbornly high” (Mulcahy, 2016, p. 275; see also Conway, 2010, 2019; Manning,
2012). This is even more perplexing given the wave of scandals to have hit the force

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