Gardai are there to serve the public – the thin blue line needs to be on the frontline
Published 17/04/2014 | 02:30
Out for a mid-evening stroll in suburbia recently, I had an unwelcome encounter of the 'I fought the law and the law won' variety. While I was crossing a side road, a fast-moving vehicle appeared out of nowhere and slammed on its brakes in front of me. The first I knew of its arrival was a blaring horn.
Startled, I stopped walking, and saw a furious man behind the wheel gesticulating at me to get out of his way. I was halfway across the side road – I hadn't just stepped out – and protested: "I was here first."
He glared, and whacked on a siren – at which point I realised he was a plainclothes cop. I had no choice but to jump aside, but I felt bullied.
Possibly, he and his companion were en route to investigate an incident. However, I suspect my clothes may have had some bearing on his contemptuous behaviour. I was wearing a hoodie, with the hood up against the evening chill. Side-on, in trainers and jeans, I suppose I looked like a teenage boy.
Whatever his reasons or assumptions, he reacted arrogantly and aggressively. Because he could. Because he had a badge and I didn't.
A minor episode, yet it rankled. This garda wasn't paid to behave like Dirty Harry. He received a salary – funded by my taxes and yours – to protect citizens. Not to bulldoze them off the road.
Protected inside his vehicle, shielded by glass and metal, he wasn't obliged to look another human being in the eye. I was just a bothersome member of the public.
And that's the problem.
Increasingly, gardai seem to keep their distance from us – to stay inside their cars and garda stations rather than patrol the streets. No doubt, staff shortages contribute to it. And presumably they feel vulnerable on foot: anyone would, wearing a stab-proof vest in the normal line of duty.
But they are public servants. They must be visible. We need them on the frontline, we need them courteous, even under provocation, and we need them able to differentiate between chancers, criminals and citizens. Watching the smartphone footage of a hooligan flash mob attacking a Spar shop in the O'Connell Street on Monday night, I was struck – as were others – by how long the incident lasted, at between 15 and 20 minutes apparently.
But no guards intervened despite being alerted, and despite two stations situated nearby. Nor were there any officers patrolling the capital's main thoroughfare: an area which would benefit from the beat being pounded regularly.
The relationship between public and gardai has been harmed by the whistleblower allegations. But it has been damaged by another factor, too: their resentment of valid criticisms. Maybe they feel underappreciated. But it is dangerous to fall into the trap of regarding the public as a nuisance rather than the reason they serve.
Granted, garda numbers are dropping and resources are pinched. Between retirements, and the 2009 public sector recruitment moratorium, numbers have fallen from 14,377 in 2010 to 13,100 in January 2014. However, recruitment started again this year.
And it's not as if Ireland is gripped by a crimewave, although the Dublin and Limerick gangs appear to operate with impunity. Recorded rates to the end of 2013 show a reduction in most types of lawlessness, with the exception of kidnapping and theft and a minor increase in homicide. (The kidnapping increase was driven by a rise in under-16s being abducted.)
I respect the gardai. The overwhelming majority are doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances. Doing their best because they care, and not just for a pay packet. Society needs them. But we also need them to accept reforms. Leadership and governance failures in the senior ranks are far from being the only problem. Use of resources must also be addressed. Complaints about funding cuts overlook another issue at the nub of effective policing: how well are existing resources used?
A fundamental approach to policing seems to have changed in recent years. Increasingly, incidents are reported of police not reaching crime scenes in time to make a difference, as the O'Connell Street incident demonstrated.
Frontline staff has to mean frontline – on the streets. Not driving round in cars. Not doing paperwork in an office. Not sitting behind computer screens.
Gardai need to change back into PC Plods – officers on patrol, familiar with citizens on their beat. It's understandable they might want to stay in the station, rather than deal with a violent junkie causing a disturbance. I doubt if anyone signed up for Templemore with that in mind. But it goes with the job.
Perhaps the gardai have given up at some level with minor transgressions because the likelihood of a conviction is low. The criminal justice system is letting down gardai who bring a petty criminal to court, only to see the perpetrator escape with a suspended sentence.
There is no incentive to repeat that time-wasting exercise with the next petty criminal they nab. Equally, the public is ill-served by a criminal justice system which implicitly suggests low-level criminality doesn't matter.
Predictably, quite a few grievances were vented this week at the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors' annual conference in Killarney. Representatives are correct to call for speedy investigations into garda corruption and malpractice.
But in complaining about all guards being tarred with the same brush by a negative media, they are failing to learn from criticism. Failing to be open to the possibility that policing methods need re-evaluation. Failing to question whether other reasons may exist why public trust is dented.
Representatives of law and order must be seen on the streets keeping law and order. The thin blue line needs to be visible.