Confidence in gardai essential
Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30
Controversial issues related to policing have emerged and persisted for almost five years, indeed before that if allegations in the 1990s and early 2000s are taken into account, and show little sign of abating let alone being resolved following the publication of the O'Higgins Commission report, the latest in a series of reports which have given rise to serious concerns about the administration of justice in this country.
Such has been the nature and extent of maladministration exposed that a troubling risk now exists that irreparable damage will be done to the heretofore generally accepted good reputation of An Garda Siochana, and critically, to public confidence in support of gardai, which has been badly shaken by recent events.
The importance of public trust and confidence can not be overstated. It could be argued that trust and confidence is the essential prerequisite to effective policing policy and practice. The public engages in quite sophisticated inferences about the trustworthiness of the police. Public sensibilities towards the police are fraught with issues of authority, social order and security. In short, a trustworthy police force is regarded by the public to be effective, fair, and to have shared values and a strong commitment to the local community.
Since its foundation, after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, followed by the merging of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in 1925, the Garda Siochana has been held in high regard as, literally, guardians of the peace, and through the decades developed trust and confidence as required. Now that those pillars of policing have been shaken, the Garda leadership must act swiftly and have regard to the fact that trust extends beyond a narrow public assessment that the gardai perform their duties effectively and efficiently to include a sense that they understand the needs of the community, that they treat people fairly and with dignity, that they allow members of the community a voice to highlight local problems. These are among the shortcomings highlighted in the O'Higgins Commission report and in other tribunal and inquiry reports which have been published before, at least since the Morris tribunal report into allegations of corrupt and dishonest policing in Co Donegal in the 1990s and early 2000s.
If people perceive the police to be procedurally fair, and if they trust their motives, all the evidence suggests that they are not only more likely to actively co-operate in reporting crime and in investigations, by providing witness evidence, and even intervening in situations of low-level deviance and incivility, but are also more likely to defer to an officer's instructions and obey the laws that the Garda in many ways still embody.
In the long run, the fight against crime would be more efficiently, more cost-effectively, and certainly more ethically served by treating the public with fairness, dignity and respect. As much as anything else, these are the issues with which the Garda Commissioner must also contend. The evident shortcomings are not confined to the Garda leadership alone, however. As a matter of urgency, the new Government must also move to preserve and indeed foster the essential relationship between the country's police force and citizens through adequate resourcing.