Garda ‘999’ call failures prevented sexual assaults being investigated

Independent report finds ‘substantial shortcomings’ in Garda handling of emergency calls from the public

Failings in the handling of 999 calls to the Garda Siochána prevented investigations and the identification of victims of possible sexual assault, a new report on the controversy has found.

The final report by Derek Penman, the former chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland, has identified “substantial shortcomings” in the Garda’s handling of emergency calls from members of the public.

Mr Penman’s 20-page report, published on Thursday, found that it was “not possible to determine whether serious harm occurred in incidents where callers or potential victims were not identified”.

Livestream of the Policing Authority meeting with the Garda Commissioner on September 29th

This concerned more than a third of the 120 call recordings he listened back to from the sample provided by the Garda as part of his independent investigation.

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It emerged last year that thousands of calls to the emergency services, including many relating to domestic violence, during 2019 and 2020 where handled incorrectly with many cancelled without a proper policing response.

The controversy led the Policing Authority, the Garda oversight agency, to commission the report in July 2021.

The Garda provided Mr Penman with a list of 2,932 cancelled calls across all four control rooms that were identified as high risk. Within this, some 83 calls were identified as being incidents considered “serious”, comprising 60 calls for Dublin and 23 calls for Cork.

These incidents were regarded as having “the potential to result in serious risk or harm to individuals” and were escalated within the Garda for urgent review.

The Garda provided a further list of 942 incidents from all four regional control rooms selected on a risk-based random selection to assess accuracy and qualify of calls in general to Mr Penman.

From this, a sample of 120 incidents were selected for call listening. However, the Garda were unable to recover call recordings for 42 incidents, or 35 per cent of the incidents selected.

Mr Penman found that although there was “potential for serious harm to victims” due to shortcomings in the handling of the calls, no actual harm was identified from the sample examined in his call listening phase.

Other failings identified include inconsistencies across four regional control rooms with examples of poor service, very limited evidence of supervisory checks and Gardaí being sent to wrong addresses to investigate serious incidents and not being able to recontact callers.

The report outlines examples of incidents where it could not be determined whether serious harm occurred because the mishandling of calls by members of the Garda prevented further investigation of the incidents or the ability to identify the alleged perpetrators or victims.

One member of the public called the Garda emergency line saying that they were witnessing what they believed to be a “serious sexual crime in progress”.

“As the caller was not kept on the line, they could not provide potentially valuable information to the Gardaí attending,” said Mr Penman in his report.

“Nor could they be recontacted to provide further information when the Gardaí attending the call were unable to locate the scene of the potential crime or victim.”

He concluded that it was “feasible” that a serious sexual crime was committed and the victim never came forward and there was no way of identifying a victim or if a crime had occurred.

In another call, a confidential third-party reporting service relayed real-time information from a child reporting an ongoing serious sexual assault on the parent.

It transpired that the service provided an incorrect address and because the call was not kept open by the service and the third-party call taker was not asked to keep the child on the line until Gardaí attended the scheme, they could not re-establish contact or check the information.

Mr Penman concluded that the seriousness of the allegations and the potential vulnerability of the child and parent should have ensured that this call was “not cancelled but instead passed for urgent investigation.” It was not possible to identify a victim, their parent or possible perpetrator.

In another incident, a parent reported that their teenager had overdosed and ran out of the house after disclosing underage sexual contact with a named adult.

When the parent called back advising that an ambulance had arrived and the teenager had been safely located, the parent was advised to report the sexual contact to their local station.

Mr Penman said that given the seriousness of the sexual allegations, the vulnerability of the teenager and possible risk by a potential offender, this incident should have been followed up.

The report finds other examples of serious incidents of domestic violence where calls were cancelled or “closed” without any further action or investigation by the Garda.

This meant that there was “no physical intervention” by Gardaí to check on the vulnerability of the caller and any children, and that no official record was created on the official Garda Pulse system “to inform risk assessments” for any subsequent calls.

In one incident, a caller reported being the victim of domestic abuse, but then called back to cancel the Garda call-out.

Mr Penman said that it is common for victims of domestic violence to do this but Garda policy was clear that calls should not be cancelled and Gardaí must attend to assess vulnerability.

The report found that gardaí “should have understood the limited circumstances when incidents could be called” and there were times when call takers “did not display sufficient skills or take sufficient time to properly assess the vulnerability of callers.”

There were incidents identified where members of the public were directed by call takers to attend local stations rather than dispatching a member of the force and, in some cases, gardaí asked dispatchers to cancel incidents which resulted in follow-up activities being avoided.

Mr Penman found the absence of call recording at local stations to be a “serious vulnerability” which was “made more acute by the lack of sufficient technical or procedural safeguards” to ensure incidents reported to local stations were recorded and appropriately checked.

In his recommendations, the former senior police officer said the Garda should concentrate resources not on further investigations of past incidents but on improving call handling.

He said that a quality service “requires a continuous, active and intrusive monitoring of adherence to policy and the quality of the engagement with callers.”

Bob Collins, the chairman of the Policing Authority, said the 999 emergency call service was a “crucial public service that people, often the most vulnerable, rely on in moments of crisis.”

“It is essential that the Garda Siochána addresses the underlying issues identified in this report — issues including supervision, selection processes for specific roles and performance management,” he said

This was required “so that the public can continue to have the confidence that it needs to have in the 999 emergency call service and will be assured for receiving the quality of service it deserves from its policing service.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent