Martina Devlin: The gardai are there to protect us, not scare us
OPEN your lungs, take a deep breath. Catch that smell? Of course you do, it's impossible to miss: a distinct whiff of hysteria is in the air.
Let's track the scent and see if we can identify its origins. As it turns out, no intensive sleuthing work is needed -- it's clear the agitation is being drummed up by garda representatives.
Now why on earth would our custodians of the peace want the public to believe they'd be better off cowering in bed, duvets pulled over their heads? Preferably with Fort Knox locks on every window and door?
Let's examine the clues. Garda numbers pruned? Check. A recruitment ban? Check. Budgets trimmed? Check. Stations closed? Check.
It all points to one conclusion: garda spokespeople have turned Cassandra for their own ends. Opportunistically, they are using recent high-profile killings to attack policing cutbacks.
Two cold-blooded hits are carried out this week -- criminals whacking criminals -- and up pop statements from both associations representing the gardai which make us feel we might not be safe on the streets. Not under current government policy, with its recruitment embargo.
And fear is kindled.
This is unfounded scaremongering. Overall crime figures do not support the suggestion that crime is rising or that Ireland is now on a par with downtown Bogota.
Government policy must be on the basis of firm evidence, collated by the Central Statistics Office (CSO). Not because garda representatives piggyback off a spate of killings to raise the spectre of the bogeyman.
John Redmond of the Garda Representative Association told RTE News: "We don't want to see budgets cut again. We want to see people feeling safe in their communities. We don't want to see guards having to go all over the place trying to do the job they are employed to do and provide policing for the community."
We are being manipulated by a war of words, with natural human anxieties played upon. But the two gangland crimes were pre-meditated and carefully executed, so it is impossible to conclude that extra garda numbers would have made a difference.
A recruitment embargo applies across the public service. Yet gardai are urging its relaxation in relation to policing. Since money cannot be stretched like a length of elastic, any extra resources added to the garda pot must be taken from some other group.
In effect, the gardai are proposing that other services suffer so they can be treated as a special case.
I'm curious. Which service are they willing to squeeze to allow more gardai to be recruited? Hospital services? Schools? Carers?
Stoking fear to bolster their position is a below-the-belt ploy. Especially when, despite the cutbacks, crime figures are falling across the board, with the exception of burglary and theft, according to the 2011 CSO figures.
A garda's job is a difficult and often thankless one, but most officers carry out their duties to a high standard. However, efficiencies are required across all public services and the gardai are no exception.
So let's look at the figures, which allow us to draw evidence-based -- rather than emotive -- findings.
Some 39 garda stations have been closed, which still leaves 664 in operation. More are likely to shut next year, but statistics show that four in five stations recorded one crime or fewer per day last year. So, not exactly run off their feet, then. Even allowing for the fact the figures do not include murder and sex offences because of identification and data protection concerns.
By comparison, Scotland, with a larger population at 5.2 million, has half as many police stations as Ireland.
Regarding garda numbers, 776 people left between January 2011 and February 2012 -- some in advance of changes to public-service pensions. But taking garda numbers above 14,000 was a record high. Bertie just loved to ratchet up those public-service jobs, bless him. And his legacy remains: there were still 13,559 gardai on the public payroll in July 2012. A healthy number, all things considered.
And now to the CSO figures for 2011. Homicide offences (including murder, manslaughter and dangerous driving leading to death) were lower than at any time in the previous seven years. They stood at 66 in 2011, compared with 138 in 2006.
Controlled-drug offences were at 17,710 in 2011, compared with 20,005 in 2010 and 21,983 in 2009.
Infringements of public order and other social codes: falling, falling, falling.
In 2011 there were 49,026 cases, a year-on-year decrease from 2005. In 2007 and 2008, by comparison, the figures had climbed above the 60,000 mark.
WHERE is the downside in a system that means fewer gardai deployed more cannily? At this year's MacGill Summer School, I was struck by a comment made by Minister Pat Rabbitte. He said that for the first time since the State's formation, timetables had been changed to roster more gardai at midnight on a Saturday than at 9am on a Monday.
Media briefings from gardai appear to be hinting at a crime spree, citing increased drug and firearms offences, along with rising dissident-republican activity and gangland feuding. But publish that data if such is the case. Let's see the evidence.
Gangland killings can't be shrugged off as just some criminals taking one another out. Nobody wants this tolerated -- not least because of the danger that innocent bystanders might get caught in the crossfire.
But let's not allow policy to be dictated by alarmist tactics. Hard evidence is what's needed. And there is none to suggest Ireland is in the grip of a crime wave.