Thursday 19 September 2019

Declan Power: 'Reform plan has potential to unshackle gardaí and allow them to serve us better'

Shining a light: Sergeant Maurice McCabe’s case showed how outdated the Garda management structure had become. Photo: collins photo agency
Shining a light: Sergeant Maurice McCabe’s case showed how outdated the Garda management structure had become. Photo: collins photo agency

Declan Power

The plan by Commissioner Drew Harris to radically alter the structure of Garda regions and divisions is one that should largely be welcomed.

In essence this is about trimming down the Garda service and making it leaner and more agile to adapt to the demands of what could be termed modern policing.

But it will also enhance the role of local communities in policing decisions and expand the power and responsibility of mid-ranking officers who lead policing at the coal-face.

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Currently there are six Garda regions commanded by an assistant commissioner and 28 divisions led by chief superintendents. In turn, these divisions sub-divide into districts overseen by superintendents.

Apart from the reasonably recent creation of Garda regions, the divisions and districts and the systems for overseeing them have changed little since they were inherited from the Royal Irish Constabulary at the creation of the State.

In fact, for a small state, our policing command and control system has been incredibly stove-piped, centralised and very rigid.

This left virtually no real opportunities for the local guards to devise or implement solutions without the say-so of a plethora of senior officers, most of whom rarely have set foot in the districts they are pronouncing on.

The restructuring will see the number of Garda regions drop from six to four and the divisions drop from 28 to 19. Already those with sectional interests - be they local TDs and councillors or the leadership of the various Garda representative bodies - are sounding cautionary notes. But are they justified?

For the most part I would say no. Local politicians are worried about the drop in status if a town loses its status as a Garda regional or divisional headquarters.

But this is far from the same as, for example, when the Government closed down a number of Army barracks. Most soldiers tended to live in the same vicinity, but this has not been the case for some time with the Garda.

Yes, there would be redeployment of junior ranking gardaí as well as middle ranks when some of the regional and divisional headquarters are disestablished. On the plus side, those officers will be put back into operational policing - what they were trained and employed to do in the first place.

In other words, what Mr Harris knows and what the recently published 'Future of Policing in Ireland' report recommended, is modern-day policing does not need the layers of bureaucracy that have fettered it.

It needs an environment of agility and mobility, both in operational terms, allowing officers at superintendent and chief superintendent level to make the key day-to-day policing decisions for their districts and divisions.

The case of Sergeant Maurice McCabe inadvertently shone a light on to the hidebound and out-of-date structure and management culture within the Garda. His case was not the only one.

There are many to choose from, including the travesty of Joanne Hayes and the Kerry babies case to the bungling of the John Carthy armed stand-off at Abbeylara. They all have a similar thing in common.

When matters got serious, local officers were cut out of the process and either individual officers or specialist teams were sent from Dublin to assume command or control. Whether this happened formally or informally, it doesn't matter.

The endings were the same: lapses in justice and in some cases perhaps unnecessary deaths.

This new system will allow the new divisional commanders to have more responsibility and say in how they run their commands. It will demand that they get more engaged with the stakeholders in their area.

In other words, good divisional commanders will develop policing strategies in partnership with stakeholders in the community.

At the moment this is well nigh impossible or extremely limited as so many locally based policing decisions are still made in Dublin or outside the division.

There is no doubt this will be challenging. In fact it will require the officers of all ranks of An Garda Síochána to put their shoulders to the wheel and learn new skills.

Divisional officers will require more leadership and management training. Superintendents will now not exclusively, as has been previously been their role, command districts, but rather act as specialist management supports to the divisional commander.

But the rewards will be there to be worked for. More responsibility centred at a local level, allowing for input from the community. More officers available for patrolling and building relationships with their community.

Of course the other end of responsibility is also true; the Government must undertake to ensure these new autonomous police divisions get the necessary manpower, technical and smart policing resources that they need.

The next three years of rolling out this new revamped Garda service require action now, not lip service.

Declan Power is an independent security and defence analyst with experience advising police services abroad

Irish Independent

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