Sunday 22 September 2019

Declan Power: 'Pro-active Harris puts down a statement of intent about reforming culture of the force'

Pro-active: Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. Photo: Collins
Pro-active: Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. Photo: Collins

Declan Power

The arrests of three gardaí as part of an investigation into corruption comes at a key time for the development of the force.

Whatever comes of the current investigation, one thing is for sure, times are changing regarding how the Garda will manage issues to do with corruption within the service.

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This investigation comes on the heels of the recent announcement by Commissioner Drew Harris that he was instituting a new dedicated anti-corruption unit to be based at Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park, commanded by an officer of Superintendent rank.

Assistant Commissioner Dave Sheahan was the senior officer tasked with drawing up a blueprint for this new unit and a considerable amount of planning has gone into its conception and methodologies.

What is interesting about this new development is the pro-active course Commissioner Harris is taking with this matter. It gives an insight into how he sees the Garda evolve operationally and culturally.

When the new unit was first announced, it was wondered aloud by some if this was an attempt to usurp the role of Gsoc, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

It should be remembered that Gsoc's mandate is to provide an oversight function for the Garda and specifically investigate complaints made by members of the public against the Garda.

However, what Commissioner Harris is doing is going further, he's effectively saying that it is primarily the Garda's job to police itself - this is an operational necessity.

So, in essence, there is no conflict with Gsoc. If anything, such a development will only enhance any Gsoc investigations in the future. Information shared by the new unit will be shared when relevant with Gsoc.

To fully understand the nature of this development, one must understand the Commissioner's professional background. One consistent theme in his policing career has been reform - but not done in a cosmetic manner, spreading something thinly across the veneer of a police organisation, but rather in-depth reform where the entire culture of an organisation was changed.

Those close to him professionally would explain it as 'marrying reform strategies with operational necessities'. This is a clever move when appealing to professional police officers to get on board with a new strategy.

Police officers, like their professional near-neighbours soldiers, tend to be impressed more with strategies designed to improve how they work on the ground rather than finely worded platitudes that read well in print or sound good on the floor of Dáil Éireann.

Harris is first and foremost a field officer and an exponent of intelligence-led policing, which is a fancy way of saying, a pro-active policeman. He believes police officers should understand the terrain they work and constantly examine it from different perspectives.

Therefore, when a crime is committed, they are not merely 'reacting' to it, rather because of their deep familiarity with their region and the people they police, they are able to get out in front of an investigation and not be easily led down rabbit holes by those who seek to derail.

Therefore, the form of intelligence-led policing, which Harris has long been an exponent and practitioner in, is now going to be applied within the Garda to uncover and deal with corrupt activities.

Heretofore, when the Garda investigated gardaí it was largely an ad-hoc affair. A senior officer from another district or division, sometimes with a few other subordinate officers, would be assigned.

Now, not only will there be a designated unit, this unit will be used as a strategic asset whose reporting lines will go unfettered straight to the top. With officers receiving specialist training, this unit will, if led correctly, develop a strong professional esprit de corps.

One of the knock-on effects of this in the long term will be the effect this has on Garda culture. The investigating officers of this unit will not be outsiders, they will be from within the force, formed by the force. They will already be eminently aware of areas, both physically and culturally, that pose a threat to the Garda from a corruption perspective.

To have a specialist unit that will literally patrol these murkier by-ways of policing will start to change mindsets within the Garda. It will cause individual gardaí of all ranks and levels of service to question things that before went unquestioned or where blind eyes were turned.

Actions speak louder than words when you are trying to reform an organisation. If the majority of gardaí who are decent and professional officers see rogue officers being investigated, charged and convicted, they will feel more emboldened to act professionally.

However, this new unit will be focusing on a myriad of activities that can be deemed unprofessional. That means forms of behaviour that might not be criminal but may be considered gateways to corrupt behaviour will also be subject to change.

The benefits of this move will only serve to make the Garda more effective at its mission to serve and protect.

Declan Power is an independent security and defence analyst

Irish Independent

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