Wednesday 18 September 2019

Damning report identifies 'Perfect Storm' over bogus breath test scandal 

The sight of heavily-armed garda checkpoints and patrols on the streets of Dublin’s inner-city has become so familiar that the innocent citizens, including young children, living in these areas no longer notice them. (Stock photo)
The sight of heavily-armed garda checkpoints and patrols on the streets of Dublin’s inner-city has become so familiar that the innocent citizens, including young children, living in these areas no longer notice them. (Stock photo)
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

THE Policing Authority has published a damning independent report on the bogus breath-test scandal and how more than 14,700 wrongful traffic convictions occurred.

The report, by accountancy firm Crowe Howarth, includes strong criticism of Garda management.

It describes a “perfect storm” of Garda management demanding ever-improving checkpoint numbers despite cuts to resources and a lack of frontline supervision.

The report also found that up to 400,000 additional bogus breath tests could have been recorded, over and above the 1.458m identified by the Gardaí themselves.

The Policing Authority has called on the Garda Commissioner to consider taking action against any Garda member where there is prima facie evidence of either a criminal offence or a disciplinary breach having been committed.

In its commentary the Policing Authority also says that issues relating to training, supervision or management "do not absolve the considerable number of Garda members, of varying ranks, across the country who made, or encouraged others to make inaccurate and dishonest returns in respect of mandatory intoxicant tests.

"Nothing has displaced the truism that no training is required for behaving honestly and ethically," the Policing Authority adds. The Crowe Howarth probe found that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the level of breath tests inaccurately recorded could be as much as 400,000 or more higher than the 1.458m identified by an earlier Garda internal review.

The authors found several deficiencies in how Garda alcohol checkpoints were carried out over an eight-year period.These include:

  • A situation where many frontline Gardaí and their supervisors felt it was important to record good or improving performance in relation to the number of checkpoints carried out.
  • The recording of false breath test data onto the PULSE computer system by Garda members who had been assigned to preform a certain number of checkpoints, but had been unable to do so.
  • The absence of adequate supervision and a lack of continuous training on checkpoints.
  • A lack of precision in recording the number of breath tests administered and a sense “across the organisation” that precision wasn’t important.
  • Data entry errors by staff at a Garda call centre and issue with regard to the Drager breathalyser devices and their stewardship by the Gardaí.

The authors said the question must be asked why these problems arose and were permitted to go on so long.

They said that a key finding is that technical issues were compounded by a culture within the Gardaí that did not recognise the importance of accurate recording.

The report said that “in addition, in a much more damaging sense” there was a dynamic of maximising data outcomes due to management pressure, expectations and lack of professional curiosity when the outcomes exceeded capacity.”

It adds: “This culture was a key driver for an enabled unethical behaviour by Garda members who falsified checkpoint data, as well as the practice of reporting estimated, rounded-up figures for breath-tests where accuracy in such detail was not considered important at any level in the organisation.”

“Our assessment is that poor governance and accountability, coupled with a lack of frontline supervision, were at the heart of these problems”

The report notes that frontline supervisory ranks saw major reductions in numbers since 2008. This meant it was rarely possible for supervisors to verify whether the number of checkpoints being entered.

The report’s authors say there were advised that “some supervisors either encouraged the entry of incorrect data onto PULSE, or even entered it themselves in order to ensure that the number of checkpoints which had been authorised was matched by the number reported on PULSE.

”They say that this represents an “almost ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of management level requirements for ever-improving figures, despite reducing resources and lack of front-line supervision or robust accountability mechanisms to validate the returns that were being submitted.

The report also examines problems in the operation of the Fixed-Charge Processing System (FCPS) led to wrongful traffic convictions.

It found that most of the factors that led to the “major problem” in the operation of the Fixed-Charge Processing System (FCPS) are still present and “need to be tackled urgently”.

The report notes that of 149,426 motorists who were incorrectly summonsed, more than 14,700 were subsequently convicted.

Among a series of factors were blamed including:

  • The “highly complex” nature of road traffic legislation.
  • Inadequate training of Garda recruits on traffic offences and an absence of continuing professional development for members.
  • Inadequate arrangements of informing Gardaí of updates regarding traffic offences.
  • A loophole in the PULSE computer system that allowed a number of traffic offences to be incorrectly linked.
  • A lack of suitable roadside technology to assist in the prosecution of traffic offences.

The authors expressed surprise that the problems weren’t identified earlier by the Gardaí, Courts Service or lawyers representing defendants, given that the errors took place over ten years.

They noted efforts being taken by the Gardaí to correct the 14,736 incorrect convictions and said it seems to be an “appropriate response”.Repayments of the resulting fines have begun.

However, the report added that complexity of the reasons that led to the problem in the first place have to be “tackled seriously”.

They acknowledged that fixes that appear to be successful have been made to the loophole in the PULSE system.But the report adds: “all the other factors which caused this major problem are still present and need to be tackled urgently”.

Labour spokesperson on Justice, Seán Sherlock TD has said the independent report published today reinforces the need for a cultural change and improved oversight within the force.

"If we are to expand the number of Gardaí, they should be recruited into an efficient and effective force, using modern equipment and policing methods to improve results," he said.

Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan said that while he "strongly welcome the clarity it brings", it presents "a troubling picture of certain practices in An Garda Síochána".

"This report does more than identify shortcomings and failures, it sets out clear-cut recommendations to ensure these failures are not repeated," he said.

"The Government established the Policing Authority to ensure oversight of policing practices, shed light on problems and identify solutions through its structured engagement with An Garda Síochána.  This report represents oversight in action."

Minister Flanagan said he remains dedicated to doing everything in his power "to ensure ethical and excellent policing, robust oversight and the modernisation of An Garda Síochána to ensure it can operate effectively and professionally in the public interest". 

"The recommendations of this report can take take us another step along that road," he added.

Acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin said that An Garda Síochána takes the findings of the Crowe Horwath report "very seriously".

"Just as Assistant Commissioner O’Sullivan’s report into these matters did, the Crowe Horwath report has also found unacceptable failures in our systems, processes, internal oversight, supervision, governance, management and culture," he said.

"These were collective failures and we must now all work together from top down to bottom up to resolve them."

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