Monday 16 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Revelations that the guards dreamt up an extra half a million breath tests won't have surprised many


'Figures from a sample of 61 checkpoints show that they recorded 392 negative breath tests. But, because of the zero factor, this went into Pulse as 3,920. Which is where 3,528 of the imaginary breath tests came from' (stock photo)
'Figures from a sample of 61 checkpoints show that they recorded 392 negative breath tests. But, because of the zero factor, this went into Pulse as 3,920. Which is where 3,528 of the imaginary breath tests came from' (stock photo)
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

We were told last week that the guards have created another half-million imaginary breath tests. That's "unbelievable", said minister Denis Naughten.

Really, Denis?

Given the string of extraordinary Garda scandals, including the previous million imaginary breath tests, is there anyone else in the country who was shocked by that news?

Can we afford to have such naive ministers?

In a moment, we'll try to put the scandal culture in context. Before that, though, we have just two examples of the nonsense that's been going on - taken from last week's reports on the breath test scandal.

The first is from a recording of a garda ringing the Garda Information Service Centre. The GISC takes calls from gardai and inputs their data into the Pulse computer system. On the recording, the garda is reporting his work on a checkpoint.

The GISC asks about the "number of vehicles stopped and controlled".

Well, says the garda: "Is that the number of vehicles through the checkpoint or number of vehicles breath- tested?" GISC: "Well, the way I reckon..."

But the garda interrupts: "I reckon it's stopped and breathalysed, is it?"

GISC replies: "Even if they're not breathalysed, if you stop them and stick your head in the window, aren't they controlled? That's my thinking on it."

The garda agrees. "We will go with you… ah, 120 went through…"

And GISC asks: "How many negative breath tests?"

And the garda says, "Thirty, and 30, 60, ah, 80, 90 we will say."

It seems that the guards weren't sure what "stopped and controlled" means. Was it stopping the car and doing a breath test; or would stopping the car and sticking your head in the window do the job?

Not that it mattered, because, in the words of the report, the recording shows the garda above "openly guessing all of the numerical data provided".

Second example: the Pulse system collects figures directly from gardai, who type the data into boxes on an online electronic form.

In the section of the form for numeric data, each box already has a zero in it.

Why? Lord knows.

Let's say you've spent a cold evening on some back road stopping cars and getting grumpy motorists to breath into your Drager device. And you had five negative results. You go to your keyboard, fill in the form, and when you come to the appropriate box you type in five.

Now, unless you first deleted the zero, that was recorded as 50.

You might imagine someone would have twigged this obvious flaw and sent out a memo: "Delete the bloody zero before you put in the bloody numbers."

But, no.

Figures from a sample of 61 checkpoints show that they recorded 392 negative breath tests. But, because of the zero factor, this went into Pulse as 3,920.

Which is where 3,528 of the imaginary breath tests came from.

No, the breath test scandal isn't all about guards making stuff up so they appear busy and efficient - though that seems to be part of it. It's also about a strange disconnect between the gardai's perception of what their fingers type in and what their eyes see on the screen.

It would be bad enough if the Garda scandals were confined to breathalysers and penalty points. But it's hard to think of an area of police work that hasn't been infected by a casual approach to performance - and a perception of the force as beyond the rules applied to the rest of us.

There's the recording of phone calls to Garda stations, the wrongful convictions of hundreds of motorists, the GSOC bugging, the smearing of Clare Daly TD, the Templemore financial scandals - and the handling of 'protected informants', which may yet put everything else in the shade.

Then there's the ineptitude of the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder inquiry, involving stupid behaviour - there is no other suitable term for it - that screwed up the life of Ian Bailey, against whom there simply isn't the slightest credible evidence.

The framing of Frank Shortt, the shooting of John Carthy, the multiple disgraceful antics in Donegal and the policing of housing estates in some areas as though they're suburbs of Baghdad.

The current Garda management has presided over a carnival of scandal. Yet, repeated failure is not an obstacle to promotion. That lesson cannot be missed by those further down the ranks - you don't have to be especially good at your job to prosper in this police force.

In fact, caring too much about the job can be bad for your career.

Obvious example: Sgt Maurice McCabe. His complaints were an attempt to improve the force. One case involved a failure to object to a man getting bail, a man with a history of violence. The man was bailed and killed a woman.

One might imagine that anyone committed to the best interests of the force and the people would welcome someone seeking to rectify such matters. The attempts to demolish Sgt McCabe are a clue to the culture within which the scandals proliferate.

What matters is sticking together.

It matters more than justice, protecting the people or doing the job right.

Competence is desirable but not mandatory. Show your loyalty in all circumstances and you'll be looked after.

(Bribe-taking or downright stealing, though, have long been regarded as indefensible.)

Group loyalty, carried to such extremes, enforces a pack mentality. It suggests a dangerous detachment from the people.

Inevitably, in a culture that defends incompetence in return for the loyalty of the incompetent, standards are dragged down to those of its least capable members.

This would account for both the repeated scandals and the continuing abuse of whistleblowers.

The fact that the political establishment have tolerated this, have stood staunchly behind the Garda hierarchy, have had to be shamed into backing whistleblowers, commits the force to the stick-together culture.

Short-term fixes to individual scandals are unlikely to last beyond the next "unbelievable" wrongdoing. Courageous and drastic action is required - how likely is that?

Sunday Independent

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