Gardaí far less likely to be convicted in court than the general public
Just 22 of the 46 people prosecuted after investigation by Ombudsman convicted
Scales of Justice: A barrister who has prosecuted cases against gardaí believes that sympathetic jurors are one of the main hurdles once a case gets to trial. photograph: graham hughes/photocall ireland.
Gardaí charged with criminal offences by the garda ombudsman are far less likely to be convicted compared to members of the general public, according to official figures. An analysis of data shows the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has a success rate of less than 50 per cent when bringing gardaí to court for criminal offences.
This compares to conviction rates of around 94 per cent for prosecutions of the general public resulting from garda investigations and almost 100 per cent for other investigative bodies such the Health and Safety Authority and Revenue.
According to data provided by GSOC, just 22 of the 46 people prosecuted after investigation by the watchdog have been convicted. This figure includes convictions after trial and guilty pleas.
One of GSOC’s main functions is to investigate criminal offences by members of the force and send such cases for prosecution. It can also investigate ordinary members of the public for submitting false complaints about gardaí.
The figures, which cover the period between 2007 and 2012, show the vast majority of GSOC prosecutions (39) were of gardaí. Only 16, or 41 per cent, of these officers were convicted.
The ombudsman took seven civilians to court during this period for making false complaints about gardaí. All but one of these civilians were convicted.
International comparisonsData on conviction rates of police officers in other countries is scarce; however there are some figures that suggest GSOC’s position is not unique.
A report from US think tank, The Cato Institute, states that the conviction rate for officers in America is less than 40 per cent. It also states officers receive, on average, far lighter punishments when they are convicted.
GSOC’s UK counterpart, The Inspectorate of Constabulary, said they do not keep such records.
Several factors have been outlined which could contribute to the low conviction rate of gardaí, including the limitations faced by GSOC as an investigating body, the perceived closed culture of the force and the attitudes of juries to gardaí who find themselves before the courts.
When the figures were put to GSOC, a spokeswoman said there was more than one issue at play.
“Ultimately the conviction decision rests with judges and juries in courts,” she said. “Why GSOC cases might have a lower than average conviction rate is a fairly complex issue that may have a number of reasons behind it.”
However the watchdog rejected any suggestion that cases were failing because of deficiencies in GSOC investigations and instead pointed to other hurdles including a lack of resources.
It was reported earlier this month that the ombudsman has had its staff levels reduced by 20 per cent since its foundation in 2007.
“Notwithstanding that GSOC is operating well below the original workforce planned for the Garda Ombudsman and that we have encountered certain well-publicised difficulties in completing investigations in a timely and efficient manner, we are not aware of any cases that have fallen because of a weakness in our investigation,” the spokeswoman said.
Lack of garda co-
operation A source within the ombudsman was more forthcoming about what obstacles are faced by the watchdog when bringing gardaí to court. They cited a lack of garda co-
operation during investigations as a factor.
“Investigations can drag on for years and we have faced significant problems with garda witnesses in the past in terms of co-operation,” they said.
“It can be a very tough job, investigators sometimes have to go back again and again to get enough information before they can send a file to the DPP.
“But it should be said that the DPP and judiciary have congratulated GSOC on several occasions and I think there is a feeling out there that GSOC does good investigations despite those issues,” they added.
The GSOC employee also suggested the conviction rate may be lower for gardaí because they “have more to lose”. If a garda is convicted of a serious crime they are likely to lose their jobs.
“It’s a lot higher stakes, the impact of a criminal conviction on a serving member of the police is a lot higher than a conviction in many other types of cases,” the source said.
“These people would be looking at every type of legal argument and would argue every possible point and would engage as much expertise as possible.”
A barrister who has prosecuted cases against gardaí believes that sympathetic jurors are one of the main hurdles once a case gets to trial.
“There’s a higher threshold you have to pass when it’s a police officer; there’s already an inherent trust there when they (jurors) see a guard in the dock,” the lawyer said. “That wouldn’t really be there with your ordinary Joe Soap up for beating the head off a chap in a nightclub.”
Added to this is the fact that the complainants in GSOC investigations often have a history with the gardaí and can easily be portrayed by defence lawyers as harbouring a grudge against them.
“A lot of the time the main witness will have his own share of convictions and when that goes before a jury you’re on the back foot already,” the barrister said. “They’re not what you would call ideal witnesses in that respect.”
GSOC has recently being granted access to the garda PULSE system for its investigations but chairman Simon O’Brien has called on the Oireachtas Justice Committee to strengthen its powers further, including allowing it to investigate complaints against the Garda Commissioner and granting it increased resources.