“When I first started in the job I was mad for the pursuits,” says one Garda veteran of high-speed car chases.
“If I heard on the [Garda] radio there was one going on, I’d fly across the city to join it. It was absolutely crazy, looking back now. I could frighten you with the number of times things went wrong – crashes, nearly hitting pedestrians. But thank God I somehow always got away with it.”
Other gardaí said they were attracted to a career in policing for the “action”, hoping to “get stuck in” to robust and challenging work. They saw pursuing criminals in vehicles – often at high speeds over long distances – as part of the high-octane work they were so keen to jump into, even though it could end in serious injury or death.
“There was a time when I first joined the job that the gouger would fly up and down the road outside the [Garda] station looking for the chase,” says another.
“And if there was no response, they’d start beeping the horn. Or they’d swipe you [veer towards a patrol car] out on the road. That was the culture: they were looking for the chase and so were you.”
Some gardaí also speak of pursuits ending when suspects – escaping from armed robberies, on their way to murder a rival or having just committed a violent burglary – were forced to a stop by pursuing gardaí and later charged and jailed.
When you’re young like that what you don’t realise is just how bad things will get for you when a chase goes wrong. When that penny drops, you wise up quick enough— A Garda source
“You’re talking about guys being found with a gun and cans of petrol to set the car on fire after the hit,” says one source. “And if you didn’t catch them red-handed, they wouldn’t have ever been charged with murder because you need to catch them with that evidence on the day.”
A number of gardaí concede they have engaged in pursuits over what they now accept, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, were very minor matters that did not warrant speeding through a built-up area.
“When you’re young like that what you don’t realise is just how bad things will get for you when a chase goes wrong. When that penny drops, you wise up quick enough,” adds one source.
Within the force, the perception of car chases has changed in the wake of a crash, allegedly during a Garda pursuit, on the N7 dual carriageway outside Dublin two years ago.
Three men – Dean Maguire (29), Karl Freeman (26) and Graham Taylor (31) – were in the car being pursued before they crashed. They were members of a Tallaght-based burglary gang and had very lengthy criminal records. They were killed when their car sped into an oncoming truck, and burst into flames, between Citywest and Baldonnell on July 7th, 2021. Their car was being driven on the wrong side of the road at the time.
When the men’s inquests recently came before Dublin District Coroner’s Court, a representative of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) applied for the hearing to be adjourned as a Garda member was set to face charges over the alleged manner of his driving. It was the first time anyone, including the garda about to be charged, knew criminal charges were imminent.
Brendan O’Connor, president of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), which represents almost 12,000 rank-and-file gardaí, says there is anger in the force over the charges. He also says a “significant number” of gardaí have been assigned driving duties with no driver training, meaning they are not permitted to exceed the speed limit or even activate their sirens or blue lights.
If permission is granted to pursue, the passenger in the Garda car must provide what is effectively a running commentary on the speed, road conditions and whether members of the public are in the area
“We hear of gardaí sitting in traffic while crimes are in progress or members of the public are in danger,” he adds. O’Connor also believes there is a “fundamental question for society” about the rules to be put in place for Garda pursuits. If those rules are very restrictive and rigidly applied, criminals will know once they engaged in a certain type of driving gardaí are not permitted to give chase.
The Garda force offers different levels of driver training, from competency-based driver (CBD) level one, which consists of checking a new Garda member’s driving skills. Gardaí with CBD1 status are permitted to drive official vehicles but cannot use their lights or sirens on the move.
That means they can only drive a Garda vehicle for transport, obeying all the rules of the road, rather than being exempt if responding to an emergency. They cannot engage in pursuits.
Those gardaí who undergo the CBD2 course – which involves training – are permitted to use lights and sirens while driving. They are exempt from the rules of the road – such as obeying traffic lights and adhering to the speed limit – if responding to an emergency, and they can join a pursuit. The next two levels of driving course – CBD3 and CBD 4 – are for gardaí who drive for specialist units, while CBD5 is for Garda driving instructors. Very few Garda members undergo any driver training above CBD2.
When on duty, gardaí must contact their control room and speak to a dispatcher, sergeant and inspector when deciding whether to pursue a suspect vehicle. If permission is granted to pursue, the passenger in the Garda car must provide what is effectively a running commentary on the speed, road conditions and whether members of the public are in the area, either on foot or in vehicles. If told to desist chasing, they must comply. Permission for a pursuit will probably only be granted if the suspects are wanted for serious crimes.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris last week said he accepted the policy on pursuits needed to be updated. He added a review process was under way, though there is no timeline for its conclusion.
Garda members who have spoken to The Irish Times say the guidelines are not clear enough and that members of the force are not familiar with them due to deficits in training. They said Garda members are “vulnerable” if they engage in pursuits and some complain of “mixed signals” from senior management.
When something goes wrong, you’re on your own and the investigations into you could last for years. And of course the superintendent, and everyone else, keeps you at arm’s length for the duration
“If you’re in a pursuit and nothing goes wrong and you end up with an arrest, especially for something really serious, you get the slaps on the back from the superintendent, even if your driving was crazy,” says one experienced Garda member.
“If you get a few good results like that, you’re much more likely to be promoted. Yet the guard who pulled back from the same pursuits, and did the right thing doing that, doesn’t get any recognition. So the risk and reward system is messed up around pursuits.
“When something goes wrong, you’re on your own and the investigations into you could last for years. And of course the superintendent, and everyone else, keeps you at arm’s length for the duration. A lot of the younger members don’t realise that. They certainly don’t truly appreciate what that means.”