Tuesday 19 November 2019

Comment: New Garda review may turn the spotlight back on senior people who called the shots

Disciplining members of the force implicated in falsifying breath tests will cause internal havoc

Breath tests: Prospects of disciplinary action will cause 'havoc' in the force Stock photo: John Giles/PA
Breath tests: Prospects of disciplinary action will cause 'havoc' in the force Stock photo: John Giles/PA
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Photo: Collins
Scandal: Opposition parties have called for the head of Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Photo: Arthur Carron
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Who's to blame for the latest Garda scandals? Since the internal Garda reports on the fake breath tests and summons scandals published last week, calls for heads to roll gathered pace.

One report found that almost 1.5 million mandatory alcohol breath tests had been faked. The second found not only that 15,000 motorists were wrongly convicted because summonses were sent to them in error, but motorists who had broken the law, including drink drivers, were never summonsed at all.

While the summonses issue was in part down to gardai who apparently didn't know what they were supposed to be doing, the report on fake breath tests implicated indeterminate numbers of gardai who fabricated figures. Gardai telling porkies about the numbers of motorists they breathalysed at mandatory alcohol checkpoints is a disciplinary matter.

Breath tests: Prospects of disciplinary action will cause 'havoc' in the force Stock photo: John Giles/PA
Breath tests: Prospects of disciplinary action will cause 'havoc' in the force Stock photo: John Giles/PA

As opposition parties call for the head of Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan for presiding over the mess, O'Sullivan is going after the Garda fakers.

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Photo: Collins
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Photo: Collins

Last week, Garda managers sent instructions to regional officers to drill down into the fake breath tests in their areas to identify the perpetrators who deliberately input false figures. With the numbers of gardai implicated expected to run to hundreds, if not more, the prospects of disciplinary action will cause "havoc" in an already fractured force.

According to Garda sources, the data collated by Assistant Commissioner Michael O'Sullivan has been dispatched to the assistant commissioners in each region, and from there will be sent to chief superintendents and superintendents for investigation.

Their task entails identifying gardai who manned the local checkpoints that produced inflated breath test data, establishing who input the data and whether there is a case for disciplinary action against them.

The regional Garda chiefs must report their findings to Assistant Garda Commissioner Michael Finn in headquarters.

The latest operation may in some way satisfy the public desire for accountability while allowing the Government to continue to support the Garda Commissioner, at least for now.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar set the tone last week, standing by the captain while criticising her troops. Doctors and teachers don't falsify their own numbers, he suggested. Why should gardai?

He believed that "disciplinary action" would be "appropriate".

The gardai in the firing line are the uniform members who man the checkpoints and their immediate superiors, sergeants and inspectors, whose job is supervision. A number of Gardai - including some higher ranking ones - are concerned that Garda bosses will target the low-hanging fruit, leaving Garda managers unscathed. Is it right that rank and file gardai should be the only ones to face disciplinary action over a mess that is ultimately of management's making, asked one.

The report by Assistant Commissioner Michael O'Sullivan and his team presented a comedy of errors, that reaches into all levels of An Garda Siochana. The primary finding was that breath test figures on the Garda Pulse system had been exaggerated by 1.45 million over a seven-year period from June 2009 to April 2017, more than 500,000 more than had been previously thought.

The report highlighted three main reasons - recording errors, a lack of clear policy and gardai who simply made up the numbers. It found that "over ambitious" scheduling of mandatory alcohol checkpoints "set by local management" was a factor in some cases. Yet elsewhere the report says management were focused on "the persistent detection of intoxicated drivers and saving lives" and found no evidence at all that higher breath test figures advanced careers.

The Garda Information Service Centre (GISC), the civilian unit which punches the numbers into the Pulse system, counted the number of cars that went through a checkpoint as the number of people breathalysed.

When gardai phoned GISC, they were asked how many vehicles they stopped and controlled, rather than how many motorists they had breath tested.

A rogue zero on the Pulse system meant that five breath tests became 50.

The information gardai were required to input to Pulse was so detailed and complicated that errors were inevitable.

In every single Garda district, members inflated the number of breath tests, some by as much as 300pc, for reasons that the internal garda auditors were never able to sufficiently explain. In Tipperary it was 385pc, while in Kerry it was 9pc - disparities that have yet to be explained.

In their submissions to the auditors, the Association of Garda Sergeants and the Garda Representative Association kicked the blame up the ranks, suggesting unrealistic pressures imposed from on high, in the interest of career advancement.

Despite the scale and reach of the fakery, the two internal Garda audits published last week avoided any direct criticism of Garda management.

The Garda associations are squaring up to resist any action that may be taken against their members. One source speculated that hundreds if not thousands of their members could be drawn into the regional investigations that are about to get under way.

Local officers will be obliged to make recommendations for disciplinary action, if there is evidence to suspect that the inflation of breath tests was deliberate. And judging from last week's report, it appears the evidence is there.

Sources across the ranks agree this to be an appalling vista. "It is very hard to blame someone when you haven't really told them what they are supposed to be doing," said one source.

"If we go down the road of investigating which gardai did what, we will end up in a bigger mess. There will be battles with the Garda organisations," he said, adding that the focus must on repairing the broken data system to ensure accurate data.

The focus may soon shift from the rank and file, however. The Policing Authority commissioned Crowe Horwath to conduct an independent review of the scandals, in which management decisions are expected to come under closer scrutiny. Which may explain why the Government is awaiting its findings before taking action on the fake breath test scandal.

Sunday Independent

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