A new way to listen
Louth's chief superintendent Sean Ward has opened a new email service for public reps to contact gardai. Anne Campbell was at the launch
When Garda Chief Superintendent Sean Ward speaks, everyone listens. And, perhaps more crucially, when others speak, he listens. That has been the hallmark of his tenure in Louth since his arrival last year, which has resulted in some interesting and useful initiatives - long wanted by many in the force - becoming real.
CS Ward has said previously that his heart is in community policing. He believes that it can make a real difference to the lives of people everywhere by putting Gardai into the middle of communities in Dundalk, Ardee and Drogheda.
By putting them on the ground, giving them the time to walk the beat, speak to people, reassure the vulnerable CS Ward is making a mission statement about Gardai and their role for the public. And he says that community policing in Louth 'is second to none'.
The first part of his enhancement of community Gardai was the introduction of sectoral policing last summer. The Louth towns were divided into sections, or sectors, and each has a designated officer. There is responsibility and accountability on each Garda for the sectors and they are backed up by the detective unit and crime unit members, with assistance from colleagues in the Community Policing Unit.
The aim is to get each Garda in charge of a sector to become an expert in that area - to know where the criminals, drugs dealers, dissidents and sex offenders are, but also where domestic violence or vulnerable people, such as the elderly and those who live alone, are.
They will get to know 'the lay of the land' as it were, visiting their designated area on a regular basis during their hours of duty and checking the PULSE (Garda computer system) on a daily basis for updates about what's happening.
It all sounds good in theory, of course, but it's not the theory CS Ward is interested in. Officers are required to make quarterly briefings to their superiors, detailing the persons of interest, the number of times the area has been visited and any other problems, such as anti social behaviour, that may be taking place.
Already, CS Ward says, there has been a great buy-in from his colleagues in Louth. In addition, there has been an increase in the high visibility patrols taking place and 'a lot of intelligence' has been gathered.
'We are very happy with it so far', he said. 'Before, we had a great community policing unit, but it was small and we had to look at new ways of bringing everyone on board. We have been knocked off our feet by the standard and detail of many of the presentations we have received from colleagues about their sectors.
'There have been over 1,200 individual patrols recorded since this initiative started in Dundalk last year'. He detailed one patrol in Ardee where a Garda got talking to a woman, aged in her nineties, who is living alone.
He said: 'Now she knows that Garda, who calls to see her on a regular basis and that is making all the difference to that woman'.
The Superintendent in Dundalk, Gerard Curley, agrees. 'We have a lot of new members saying that straight away, when they arrive here, they are owning their sectors. They feel they can make a real difference with sectoral policing in terms of what they can do and they can achieve results, instead of looking at the town as a whole.
'The Gardai have bought into this; they want to help vulnerable people in the areas, call to people, speak to Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators'.
Ultimately, it is hoped that if a major incident happens in a sector of any of the three towns, the Garda in charge of that area will be brought on board the investigation team from the start, providing intelligence, assistance and expert knowledge of the sector.
Last week, CS Ward the next phase of this new era of policing. From August 2, a new, dedicated email service has been made available to elected representatives and to Louth County Council officials that will allow them to get in touch with Gardai about non-emergency issues.
These could include anti social behaviour, drug dealing, loud music, street drinking and other issues that are not 999 emergencies, but nonetheless frustrate, anger, depress, frighten, intimidate and upset people in the community and can serious affect their quality of life.
Here's how it works: a public rep is contacted by a member of the public, or a group, about a particular issue in a particular area. The rep can email the dedicated Garda address and outline the issue. On receipt of the email, an acknowledgement will be sent to the rep.
The email will be forwarded to the Garda officer responsible for the sector where the issue has arisen and the assigned member will then address the issue, find out about and try to resolve it. The message detailing the problem will also be forwarded to sergeants, the superintendent and CS Ward.
A report of the actions taken will be sent back to the central address where an email will be forwarded to the rep who raised the matter.
The councillor or TD can then tell the member of the public who initially raised the issue about the outcome. Gardai want all contact for the initiative to go through the email address to ensure proper records are kept. The email facility is managed by dedicated civilian staff.
At the moment, only certain areas in Drogheda, Dundalk and Ardee are covered by the initiative and issues raised outside the sector policing initiative should be reported to the local Garda station as normal.
There are around 50 sectors in Dundalk alone, with around 40 in Drogheda and 12 in Ardee.
And this is, CS Ward says, a pilot project which will be evaluated in six months and, depending on the success or otherwise of the email facility, it will be retained, developed or discontinued.
'We need to be working together to identify the issues and problems', the chief superintendent says. 'It's a pilot, but I don't see it stopping and I think it will be of benefit. I think it will provide effective and accountable policing for Louth'.
It's a unique plan, created by CS Ward, whose background is in community policing in some of the most demanding areas of Dublin. The Dublin North Central Division has a similar sectoral policing project underway, with a smaller one being run in Mayo too.
But geographically, and arguably in terms of the specific challenges posed by the border, the Louth Division is on its own. Only time will tell whether the initiatives are truly successful and whether the most important people, the public, have noticed a tangible difference. And Chief Superintendent Ward will continue to listen.