Sunday 17 November 2019

Officers 'belittled' and 'shouted down' by management after flagging Garda record-keeping issues

Policing Authority is facing serious questions over the treatment of Garda whistleblowers, writes Kevin Doyle

Civilian officers Lois West and Laura Galligan give evidence to the Oireachtas Committee
Civilian officers Lois West and Laura Galligan give evidence to the Oireachtas Committee
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It's easy to see how 'scandal fatigue' could set in when it comes to An Garda Siochana. Two million fake breath-tests, penalty points wiped, people wrongly brought to court for fixed charge notices and even the Kerry Babies have grabbed front-page headlines in recent years.

And that's even before we look at what is happening in Dublin Castle at the moment under the guidance of Mr Justice Peter Charleton.

But the response to the next big Garda outrage is well below even the very low standard that has been set for dealing with these situations.

For years, individual gardai have made little effort to record accurate details of crimes on their internal Pulse computer system. They have left vulnerable people at risk and potentially violent characters unchecked. Not only is this real, it's happening now in 2018.

In the first 10 months of last year, 95 deaths had varying types of data quality issues.

The full scale of the problem was spelt out by two civilian officers at an Oireachtas committee last week. Lois West (deputy head of Garda Siochana Analysis Service) and Laura Galligan (senior crime and policing analyst) also described how they were "belittled" and "shouted down" by management when they tried to do something about it.

Bad book-keeping doesn't come as a shock but what followed next does.

They went to the Policing Authority in a bid to have their analysis highlighted and were turned away. Worse still, they were "ratted out" as somebody in the PA "told tales" back to Garda HQ, making a mockery of the authority's much-heralded independence.

The origins of this controversy date back to July 2016 when the Garda National Protective Services Bureau requested a 10-year domestic homicide review (2007-2016).

Knowing how limited the Pulse system is, the Garda Siochana Analysis Service (GSAS) asked for permission to work in collaboration with the Office of the State Pathologist, which maintains very specific records.

And even as State Pathologist Marie Cassidy happily offered the help of her team, nobody was aware of the can of worms that was about to be opened.

For no particular reason, Ms Galligan began scrutinising Pulse recordings of deaths in 2014 and quickly realised there were inconsistencies with homicide and death classification.

By late November 2016, she compiled an 87-page report entitled 'Comparative Analysis of the Recording and Reporting of Homicide Incidents in the Pulse Database and the Office of the State Pathologist'. It referenced a review of 524 deaths between 2013 and 2015, concluding that 43 cases were not identified as potential homicides.

The following January a review group was created with officers from Policy Development, Implementation and Monitoring (PDIM). Nine meetings took place between January and March 2017. Ms Galligan and Ms West described "very robust discussion" but failed to get the respect they deserved.

"Indeed, at times I felt we were belittled and treated very poorly," said Ms Galligan.

In late April they were "extremely surprised" to learn through the media that the review into homicide had found only "minor classifications".

A bigger shock was when gardai told the Policing Authority that a report had been completed by the 'review team'.

This report was not shared with either of the analysts and following the Policing Authority hearing they were put under pressure to sign-off on it - even though it described Ms Galligan's as "inherently weak".

All the while there was a real fear that vulnerable women were at risk because tabs were not being kept on suspected domestic abusers.

But the real sting in the tail that blows the political cover usually given to the Government in these situations is what happened when the women turned to the independent body to oversee the performance of the Garda Siochana.

The Policing Authority's key objective "is to promote trust and confidence in policing and to help shape policing services for Ireland in the future".

Understandably Ms West thought the office, headed by former Revenue chief Josephine Feehily, would be the place to turn with their concerns.

By phone or in writing, she contacted their offices on April 3, May 16, June 30 and July 19 last year. To date, the whistleblowers have met no one from the Policing Authority in relation to the homicide review.

But it appears that people in the PA didn't just ignore them. It's worse than that. They "ratted them out" to their superiors in Garda HQ.

On August 1, Ms West was told by a senior officer that they had been informed in a phone call from someone within the authority that approaches had been made.

"This was raised with me in the context of management trying to ascertain what my thinking was when I did this," Ms West said.

Alarms bells should be going off in the Department of Justice, Garda HQ and the Policing Authority - but if they are, nobody is leaving the building.

The reaction from the State to the whistleblowers' public statements has been devoid of any real urgency.

Following the Oireachtas hearing last Wednesday morning, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan issued a statement at 10.29pm pointing out that "neither I, nor my department, have seen the dossier prepared by the two analysts".

The minister noted that the issues surrounding homicide statistics have been in the public domain "for some time, preceding my appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality".

And he declared himself "concerned about the statements".

For their part, the Policing Authority said that "in general terms we can confirm that robust safeguards are in place to appropriately protect confidentiality".

But "general terms" means very little and clearly doesn't apply to this case. Ms Feehily will have serious questions to answer when she appears before the Oireachtas committee on March 21.

In the Dail last Thursday, it took Tanaiste Simon Coveney a couple of attempts to express "extreme concern".

Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath first raised it by noting the reward the two women got for telling the truth "was to have their integrity and professionalism attacked".

"This is not about book-keeping; it is possible that people were actually put at risk," he said.

Having sat through the almost four hours of evidence at the committee, Independent TD Clare Daly was even more outraged.

She reiterated that the misclassification of crimes "could be the difference between life and death".

The Dublin Fingal TD questioned whether the Government understands "the chilling effect" the leaks from the Policing Authority could have.

Labour TD Alan Kelly, who has been at the forefront of calling out Garda scandals, believes the best way to restore trust "is to hold an immediate inquiry into how such treatment of those who speak up in An Garda Siochana could happen again".

Such an inquiry won't be immediate, but I wouldn't rule it out in the long-term.

At the start of this year, Garda management set up a new review team that appears to have a proper plan for investigating the inconsistencies in homicide recording.

Ms West and Ms Galligan have been given a central role in this work and so far are pleased with the operation.

But this time there must be ramifications for individual officers who showed a "slack" attitude to the routine but important job of keeping accurate records.

Faking breath-tests was largely a victimless game of cooking the books. Not recording domestic homicides correctly may well have already cost lives.

Sunday Independent

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