Thursday 20 October 2016

Dearbhail McDonald: Radical change within An Garda Siochana must start at the top

From logging calls on paper to the absence of a cyber crime unit, the biggest problem is lack of will, says Dearbhail McDonald

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

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Perhaps it's the time of year or perhaps we've exceeded crisis fatigue. It could be the fact that parts of the country are facing near-apocalyptic flood threats in the aftermath of Storm Desmond. But apart from cursory media coverage and the customary, round robin political hand-wringing and back-biting, the reaction to the latest report from the Garda Inspectorate has been decidedly muted.

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Yet it is, like the Fennelly, Guerin, Toland and Morris reports (to name but a few) before it, an indictment of the operation and management of An Garda Siochana.

The report of the inspectorate, an independent statutory body that evaluates and benchmarks our police force against international best practice, is also an indictment of the force's relationship with the State.

Some of the findings contained in Changing Policing in Ireland are inconceivable, such as the fact that some garda stations are still recording emergency 999 calls on paper, with insufficient units at peak demand times to respond to such emergencies.

Or that on a Saturday night, there are 1,377 gardaí out of a force of 12,882 on duty outside stations, compared to 877 on a Tuesday night when public order and safety needs are significantly lower.

The recent murder trial of architect Graham Dwyer, replete with forensic phone and computer expertise worthy of a Bourne movie, was - like the fraud trial of struck-off solicitor Thomas Byrne before it - a showcase of investigative excellence. But these are the exception rather than the rule.

The reality, as the inspectorate's report paints in the starkest terms, is that An Garda Siochana is a top-heavy, primarily paper-driven organisation that uses vintage technology, in some cases more than 30 years out of date.

It is 2015; yet digital images and attachments (such as photographs and videos) can't be sent within An Garda Siochana or externally, making a mockery of the notion of remote or real-time investigation.

Our specialist national units are not investigating serious crimes such as homicides. The fraud bureau is close to collapse because of a new white-collar crime law that was introduced by former Justice Minister Alan Shatter four years ago without proper resources to support it.

And even though Ireland is the de facto European HQ for some of the world's biggest tech companies, we have no cyber crime unit in An Garda Siochana.

This has meant that many serious criminal trials, including child sex abuse and serious organised crime cases, have been dismissed by the courts because of delays of up to four years as officers try their best to analyse computers and other technologies they have seized. Judges, lawyers, gardaí and others flagged this vista, appalling as it is, many years ago, but these entirely foreseeable risks were never managed by the State.

It is simply frightening to think that child abusers or worse, people who share Graham Dwyer's proclivities, have evaded or will in the future evade justice for their crimes.

In the wake of any crisis or criticism, the prevailing mantra by the force's many, articulate and well-resourced representative bodies is a war cry for more recruitment.

Rarely are these garda leaders out in front with innovative plans to reform work practices, notwithstanding financial constraints.

Yet the Garda Inspectorate reckons more than 1,000 staff could be immediately released back to frontline duties, at little or no cost, by removing them from technical and administrative posts that do not require sworn powers.

The Inspectorate also says the force's coffers could receive a significant boost if promoters were legally obliged to pay the full cost of the policing of private events such as concerts.

And whilst there is legitimate public concern about burglaries, an inordinate amount of garda time is spent dealing with false alarm calls to properties - some 49,000 last year alone. It may seem controversial, but the Inspectorate recommends that charging fees (as other police forces do) for needlessly wasting vital garda time could focus minds and free up the frontline.

It is beyond dispute that An Garda Siochana has been severely impacted by the economic crisis as the (recently lifted) moratorium on public recruitment collided with record numbers of officers leaving the force through retirement and other means.

The loss of real-time garda hours since 2009 has been colossal. But this can equally be said of many of our public institutions such as hospitals and our courts system.

And just ask anyone in the private sector how they have coped since the Troika arrived on these shores and you will hear familiar tales of manpower crises, disruption and necessary adaptation.

Except that the Gardai as an institution is culturally averse to change.

This, in fact, is the most depressing conclusion of the Inspectorate's report, which in all but name calls for an abolition of existing management structures.

These conclusions are couched, of course, in courteous language.

But it finds that there are minimal and often ineffective internal changes made to the structure of An Garda Siochana in response to recommendations made in many previous reports and inquiries.

The centrally controlled, hierarchical culture that sustained self-preservation has not changed.

Staff spoke to the inspectorate of an insular and defensive culture, one where people are afraid of repercussions of making mistakes, of a gulf between gardai and senior managers.

Accepting recommendations in the wake of reports, they are simply not implemented.

On governance and finance, the 'special relationship' between the Department of Justice and the force must change - and will, we hope, once our new, independent policing authority is in place next year.

In spite of all this, there is a huge regard and respect for our gardai, especially those on the frontline.

Gardaí are at the heart of our community, but to continue to serve it well, the institution must finally yield to change.

Sunday Independent

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