Eilis O'Hanlon: No business would have lasted this long if it was run as badly as the Garda
The latest report by the Garda Inspectorate into the force's unsatisfactory handling of child abuse cases makes grim reading, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
There's a black joke about a man who calls the police in the middle of the night to report a burglary taking place at his house. The dispatcher says they won't be able to get there straight away as no officers are available. The man calls back a few minutes later to say that there's no need to hurry because he's just shot the suspect. Within minutes, the house is flooded with squad cars, who catch the burglar, still in rude health, trying to creep away. "I thought you said you'd shot him," the police say to the caller.
His answer: "And I thought you said no one was available."
The story neatly encapsulates the feeling that the police are never there when needed. It's undoubtedly unfair. An Garda Siochana do what they can, but the impression of being alone in the face of threats to life and property certainly runs deep in rural areas, where, as the Director of Public Prosecutions told the Court of Appeal last week, people are living "in permanent fear or dread".
Last week's publication of a review by the Garda Inspectorate into the force's handling of child abuse cases adds further fuel to that discontent. The 256-page report admits that the Garda have implemented fewer than half of the recommendations made five years ago for dealing with child abuse. Suspects are not being recorded on file. The accumulation of open cases stretches back years.
Most worryingly of all, "inexperienced and untrained gardai are still involved in all stages of child sexual abuse investigations", an approach which is "not used in any of the other police services visited during this review and is not regarded as good practice".
The consequences of this were starkly laid out by One In Four, the charity helping those affected by childhood trauma. It noted that inadequate consultation between gardai and the child and family agency Tusla has led to children being left in situations that expose many of them to further sexual abuse, and that many offenders, even some of the most serious, are not being placed under supervision orders on release from prison. Even when cases are investigated, the review finds that fewer than 13pc of those sampled were subsequently referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and that, of this number, only a third resulted in a conviction. That translates to a conviction rate of just over 4pc of all reported child abuse.
As One In Four notes: "The vast majority of sex offenders can be confident they will never be called upon to answer for their crimes."
When it comes to the online exploitation of children, the situation is equally grim. Gardai trained by the FBI now have the technology to track computers accessing child pornography in real time but aren't using it because they don't have the resources to follow up on the intelligence. In one case, this led to a young victim of indecent assault not being identified and rescued for three years.
The review says that gardai need to go "on the front foot" to tackle online grooming, not least because, as One In Four also noted, these failures increase the risk that "vigilante groups will take the law into their own hands". The phenomenon of so-called paedophile hunters came to prominence shortly before Christmas when a Leeds-based group lured RTE producer Kieran Creaven to the city on the pretext of meeting a 14-year-old girl for sex. The girl did not exist, but Creaven didn't know that. He was confronted and held until police arrived, later pleading guilty to two offences, including attempting to incite an under-age girl into sexual activity.
Just last week, gardai in Louth were called in after another amateur group confronted a man they accused of sending explicit pictures to a girl he believed to be 13 years old. The Department of Justice has warned that evidence collected by these amateur sleuths "may not reach the evidential standard in a court of law", and there are concerns that such ugly confrontations could easily spill over into violence.
Live streaming showdowns with suspects can also make securing subsequent convictions more difficult. Of 110 cases presented to police by one such group in Northern Ireland, only three were found to be strong enough to submit to the Public Prosecution Service.
There are too many potential pitfalls from taking the law into one's own hands, and many groups which do so have involvement from some seriously shady characters, hiding behind fake identities, their real motives unknown, often sinister. But is it any wonder that some people continue to do so anyway?
Like the police rushing to the scene of a reported shooting in that earlier anecdote, officers will respond quickly when an alleged paedophile is cornered by vigilantes, but would they have been as pro-active if concerned citizens had merely handed on what information they have to the authorities? The Garda Inspectorate report does not inspire confidence on that score. Send details to the Garda, and sometimes they may be acted upon, but more often not.
That's still not a good argument for taking the law into one's own hands, and the Garda is right to discourage zealous amateurs from playing Dirty Harry on the streets. A more effective alternative is to make perpetrators of child abuse as afraid of the chances of being caught by gardai as they increasingly are of online stings.
Resources must be made available. That goes without saying. Money should be no object, but even if the Garda had unlimited means, those in charge would still need to ensure that the money was targeted to the right areas.
This latest review was overseen by Chief Inspector Mark Toland, who has over 30 years' experience with London's Metropolitan Police and took over at An Garda Siochana Inspectorate last November.
It makes 24 new recommendations, some of which ought to be relatively straightforward to implement, including that investigations should not be left in the hands of rookies fresh out of Templemore, as well as ensuring that joint interviewing by gardai and social workers should be introduced in child abuse investigations to avoid the necessity of victims needing to go through the trauma of being interviewed more than once.
An implementation group is to be established by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to ensure that the suggestions are met.
But there's no point pretending that another review in five years' time may not be equally "disappointed" with the follow-up as the current inspectorate is with the response to the previous one. Additional resources have been made available by the Government in recent years. Improvements have been noted. Back in 2012, the system was so chaotic that gardai were unable to even supply an annual figure for sexual offences against children. Now so-called protective service units are set to be in place in every garda division by the end of the year.
Knowing what needs to be done and doing it sometimes require different skill sets, however. Kathleen O'Toole, the former Garda Inspectorate chief, who now heads up the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, said last month that An Garda Siochana should be run "more like a business".
She made the same point at last year's MacGill Summer School in Glenties. O'Toole has been somewhat vague on how that can be achieved, beyond wishing for a new Garda Commissioner with "extraordinary leadership and management abilities", but on both occasions, her comments attracted less attention than they deserved.
It may be overly simplistic to see the Garda as just another large enterprise, but it's also true that no private business would continue for long if it was run this badly and so consistently failed those who relied on its services.