News Martina Devlin

Thursday 27 October 2016

Why our under-resourced gardaí need public support

Published 16/04/2016 | 02:30

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Photo: Keith Heneghan

A few hours after the Sheriff Street gangland killing, I saw a guard stop a cyclist who flew through red lights - almost ramming a pedestrian. Two gardaí were standing nearby and the older one flagged him down at once to deliver a reprimand about respecting traffic signals. The chastened cyclist - young and male - proceeded on his way with caution.

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Clearly, An Garda Síochána had bigger fish to fry that day, following yet another public shooting - this one a case of mistaken identity. But it struck me, watching the guard do his job just a stone's throw from Sheriff Street, that here was an experienced police officer who understood the importance of prevention, and took a few moments to attend to it.

Nobody was hurt in that particular incident. But it happened on an intersection of Dublin's O'Connell Street at rush hour, the cityscape dense with people and vehicles; the swift rebuke - "What do you do when you see a red light?" asked the guard - may well ward off an accident in the future.

Plus, last Thursday's killer pedalled away on a bike after spraying his victim, Martin O'Rourke, with bullets from an automatic weapon. So it was worth keeping a weather eye out. With policing, there is always a possibility that human interaction may turn up helpful information, or join a few dots. Crime-fighting is no desk job, but a hands-on vocation.

So, there are two elements to consider here. First, the need for gardaí to have a visible presence on the street. And second, the value of prevention. Both of which require funding, the latter through intelligence gathering as well as keeping experienced people in the service - not pushing them towards retirement packages because it reduces payroll costs.

"Where were the guards?" was one of the first questions asked by locals in Sheriff Street. After the tit-for-tat violence unleashed in February by the Regency Hotel murder, a police presence in the north inner-city neighbourhood was noticeable - but as soon as garda overtime was scaled back, the criminals were ready to strike.

Perhaps that attack would have taken place anyway. However, the lack of resources and training is being raised again and again by gardaí - less so, by their leaders. This disconnect may be why serious morale issues have been identified within the Garda Síochána, although a judicial system which gives sentences that act as no deterrent is another factor. At the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) conference in Westport this week, we heard how garda morale is at an all-time low.

Prevention is a key element of policing. But successive cutbacks have led to the loss of experienced people with decades of embedded knowledge and a gut instinct for the job. We saw the impact of that absence at the Regency.

The hotel was awash with journalists on the lookout for gang friction at a boxing weigh-in. But Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan both admitted there was no prior intelligence regarding potential violence. And they said it with never a blush. The ramifications from that intelligence void are far-reaching. They speak of mistaken political policies and garda leadership deficiencies.

At the time, I posed a number of questions about the lack of competence and investigative capacity within the Garda Síochána. In response, a number of long-serving gardaí contacted me to express frustration at the hierarchy's failure to insist on more resources. Here's one example. "The slashing of budgets for any sort of painstaking surveillance has resulted in the flow of information running dry," said a frontline guard.

Intelligence is vital to successful policing but the garda ability to do this has been reduced on a number of fronts. Austerity cutbacks have culled senior experienced investigators, removing a layer of expertise: knowledge about criminal family structures has been lost.

In addition, one of the guards communicating with me suggested intelligence gathering has been hampered by the introduction of the Covert Human Intelligence System (CHIS). This governs all garda interaction with people from a criminal background supplying information. Guards are required to register someone as an informant and pass them along to a nominated CHIS handler to elicit information. But they say this has impacted on the flow of quality tip-offs. Why would any informer trust their new handler?

Remember, these people don't regard themselves as informers - when they give information, it happens in the context of a trusting relationship built up through personal contact. CHIS may work in other jurisdictions, but Ireland has history in relation to informers and no-one wants to risk being identified as one.

Elsewhere, guards say their senior officers are intent on transferring principles from the business world to policing. For example, daily interaction between criminals and frontline gardaí has been reduced by the court presenter system in the Dublin Metropolitan Courts, introduced as a cost-saving measure - and sensible economies are to be welcomed, provided benefits are weighed against potential disadvantages. Evidence of arrest, charge and caution is now presented to the district judge via certificate, freeing gardaí for other policing. However, that interfacing led to a consistent flow of information helping to solve more serious crimes. Try logging that in a business plan spreadsheet, though.

Equally, the Garda Síochána must be flexible in other ways. About 300 could be released from desk jobs to join their colleagues on the streets if their posts were handed over to civilians, says Bob Olson, chief inspector of the Garda Inspectorate. No one needs to be a Templemore graduate to carry out some of the jobs handled by uniformed gardaí.

Something has to give. But one thing is clear: our battered and under-resourced guards deserve public and political support.

Currently, Ireland is stuck with an echo chamber instead of a government.

Take a look at that loyal body of hardworking guards who face violence routinely, yet remain eager to combat criminality, even with the limited means available to them. Now look at the Dáil, where politicians put party before country.

The morale crisis within the Garda Síochána - even as most put their shoulders to the wheel and work as best they can - is simply one more example of a problem that's being ignored by the political class; a group for whom duty is a meaningless concept.

Irish Independent

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