Allegations in Guerin Report of significant public concern

Opinion: Police misconduct must be effectively deterred

‘Police misconduct must be effectively deterred, by penal sanctions where the criminal law has been violated, and in other instances by effective disciplinary measure.’ Above, members of An Garda Síochána on parade during a graduation ceremony in Garda Colllege, Templemore. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘Police misconduct must be effectively deterred, by penal sanctions where the criminal law has been violated, and in other instances by effective disciplinary measure.’ Above, members of An Garda Síochána on parade during a graduation ceremony in Garda Colllege, Templemore. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mon, May 12, 2014, 16:56

The publication of the Guerin Report provides a valuable opportunity to take stock of the present organisation and supervision of the Garda Síochána, and how the existing system might be improved. More importantly, it should cause us to reflect on deeper questions of police ethics and how respect for ethical standards can best be instilled in the gardaí collectively and individually.

Moral legitimacy must the lodestar of any future reform initiatives. In a constitutional democracy committed to the rule of law, no police force can operate effectively unless all of its members are clearly seen to obey the law and operate with complete integrity in their dealings with the community they are meant to be serving. Without that assurance, members of the public will scarcely be wholehearted in offering the support and co-operation on which police forces are so dependent in the discharge of their duties.

There is an influential school of thought, associated mainly with the American psychologist Tom Tyler, which holds that people are far more likely to obey the law when they perceive the principal actors within the legal system, such as police and judges, to be fair, impartial and willing to adhere strictly to rules and procedures. Proponents of this view believe that consistent procedural fairness and propriety is more efficient than the threat of harsh punishment in dissuading people from committing crime. This may be over-optimistic in some respects, but it is certainly true that law-abiding citizens are far more like to co-operate with a police force which is clearly committed to transparency, legality and accountability and which is not willing to sidestep the rules in order to achieve desired outcomes.

Police in most countries depend largely on the public to bring serious crime to their attention. Pro-active policing, in the form of traffic checkpoints and so forth, will bring a certain amount of offending to light. But few serious crimes against the person will be detected unless victims or people close to them are willing to make a report or complaint. The willingness of victims and others to report crime depends crucially on the level of public confidence in the efficiency and integrity of the police.

The allegations described in the Guerin Report are relatively few in number but most of them are sufficiently serious to warrant further investigation. They are certainly matters of significant public concern, which is the essential criterion for instituting an inquiry under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. An investigation into the allegations made by Sgt McCabe (and other whistleblowers who may yet come forward) could well be time-consuming and expensive, but it would have a number of benefits.

First, it would determine whether there has been wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise, by individual members of the Garda Síochána. Obviously, a commission of investigation, no more than a tribunal of inquiry, cannot make findings of criminal liability or impose punishment. Any statement or admission made by a person to a commission cannot later be used in any legal proceedings against that person. Decisions to prosecute would have to be taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions, but prosecution should remain possible where offences appear to have been committed.

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