Gerry Gregg: Garda must look to America for new ways to fight crime
Streets of fear: Crime rates may be falling, but the rise in anti-social and violent behaviour means we no longer feel safe on our streets
A young motorcycle cop put his life on the line last week and nearly lost it.
Garda Michael Twomey bravely attempted to safeguard the public in Cork by blocking a road with his motor bike. He was then knocked down by the driver of a stolen van.
Two men were later apprehended after a high speed chase by a posse of squad cars. They had left a trail of wreckage across Cork city in their wake but said they were “sorry” when they appeared in court at the weekend.
Luckily Garda Twomey is expected to fully recover.
We're told that crime is down. The official stats for 2013 indicate that most of the trends point to an improvement in law and order. Since 2008 the figures have been getting better.
But somehow we're not convinced. We don't feel 5pc safer today than we did last year.
Window cleaner John O'Regan's shooting last week in Ballymun was just the latest homicide in broad daylight by an assassin.
The data shows that such killings are decreasing year on year.
But the fact that an estimated 100 gangland hits remain unsolved tells us something deeply disturbing about serious crime in Ireland. Gangsters are literally getting away with murder.
Over 650 crimes are reported in Ireland every day. Close to half are robberies. Public order offences and criminal damage account for a third of all police business.
Traders in Dublin city centre are plagued day and night by gangs of youths high on drink and drugs who cause havoc in their stores and intimidate customers.
A casual Youtube trawl will turn up a horror show of random street violence in Dublin – most recently a 20-minute siege of an O’Connell Street shop by a gang of young thugs.
Stephen Maguire's story as reported in the Herald last month is typical. The New Yorker runs a café in Temple Bar. Last month he was attacked by a couple of dozen teenagers after he tried to stop them vandalising the sign outside his premises.
Kicked and punched by multiple assailants, Stephen feared for his life. His customers were also threatened and had missiles hurled at them. They're unlikely to be rushing back to Stephen for an Americano.
We all know the Garda Siochana is a force under pressure. Yet even if there had been no whistleblowers, or bugging scandals, or botched investigations into serious crimes, the Garda Siochana would be at a crossroads as a police force.
Now with morale at rock bottom there is unprecedented public doubt about the force's competence, its ethos and its integrity. The Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan resigned last month in circumstances that have still to be fully explained.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter may have survived a Dail vote of confidence but inspires little faith among the public that he or his Government colleagues can put things right.
Ironically there has never been a better time than now to overhaul the force and transform its culture.
The Garda Siochana was set up in 1922 to provide a much-needed impartial service to a fledging state in the middle of a bitter civil war. Over 90 years later Ireland has dramatically changed but the force hasn't changed much in the way it does its business.
Now with a new Commissioner to be appointed there is an opportunity to reconnect with the people and reboot. The time has come for a radical overhaul. The old structures are broken and the stuffy top brass mindset that frowns on innovation has had its day.
Where do we look for ideas? Well the place should certainly not our near neighbours in Britain. There, only a fraction of crimes are solved.
The “Bobby” is largely ineffective in a system riddled with the notion that criminals need to be “understood” rather than punished for their wrongdoing. Reported crime is falling but public trust in the local copper is falling too.
Instead we could usefully look to America a bold new direction. The most successful experiments in policing have occurred in the US where cities like New York were liberated from the grip of fear and violent crime.
And it wasn’t Americans who led the way in that country. Dubliner John Timoney was to the forefront in the reformation of the New York Police Department.
The first item on the reform agenda was to banish the phrase “we have always done it this way”.
The NYPD stopped reacting to crime and set out “to prevent and uproot” criminal behaviour. For years Manhattan was dodgy after dark. But cops like Timoney were encouraged to make no place in the city “unpoliceable”.
Thugs were confronted with a new message.
“It's not your street. It's the people's street. We're taking it back.” Cops flooded crime hotspots.
New technology and street-smart tactics were deployed to help smash drug gangs and auto theft rings. From 1993-1999 murders dropped by 70pc and larcenies by over a half.
Beat cops were the frontline troops. Good ones were promoted. Bad ones demoted or sacked. Morale was transformed. The Big Apple was reborn.
Dubs like Timoney re-wrote the textbook for modern policing. The new boss in the Phoenix Park should take a leaf out of his book.
We want our streets back too.