The most senior law and order office holders in the country now appear to accept the Dublin riots exposed a reluctance among many gardaí to use force, even when under attack by a mob. Amid serious disturbances – which included looting shops and burning vehicles – many gardaí were simply unwilling to trade blows with the rioters for fear of the possible repercussions.
Immediately after the riots, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris sent a memo to every Garda member, saying they may face similar violence in the near future. Tellingly, he assured them they were permitted to use “coercive powers” and would be supported if they did so.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is also clearly concerned as she has contacted the Policing Authority seeking clarity around the Garda’s use of force. She has done that, she said, so gardaí “do not feel that they are operating with their hands behind their backs”.
So what exactly is going on? Why are many gardaí so reluctant to use force in the line of duty, and why is this emerging as an issue now?
Garda members who spoke to The Irish Times said the issue centred largely, though not exclusively, on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc), which investigates allegations made against gardaí. The sources said if gardaí used force in a violent or threatening situation, the person they were tackling could lodge a complaint with Gsoc.
Once that complaint was lodged, a Gsoc investigation could take years and could result in a criminal prosecution in the courts. During that time, the gardaí under investigation would be suspended from duty. Even if eventually exonerated, the whole process was so negative and isolating it could be life-changing, the sources said.
One explained the view across the Garda organisation was that being subjected to a Gsoc inquiry over the use of force amounted to “a paralysis of your own career”.
“Nobody in the [Garda] has been promoted while they are under investigation by Gsoc,” he said. “Your family, your home, your income is on hold on the utterances of the person making the allegation against you. You can be suspended for years and there’ll be a complete lack of support for you from the [Garda] organisation.”
Another Garda member pointed out when he or his colleagues were investigating suspects, for a range of criminal offences, the law obliged them to complete their investigation and bring charges within rigid timeframes. However, there were no such obligations placed on Gsoc when it was investigating Garda members.
“These Gsoc investigations can go on for years and years and by the time you get through them, your confidence, and even your career, can be in tatters,” he said.
Others pointed out it was ultimately the DPP that decided if a Garda member should face charges over use of force allegations. They believed the DPP’s office needed to take a more realistic view of the dangers a Garda member was facing when they used force. They also believed the requirements to record and explain all incidents involving use of force – even the use of handcuffs – was something the Policing Authority, and perhaps the Government, needed to review.
“I wouldn’t point to just Gsoc, it’s a climate,” said one Garda member when asked about the reluctance among gardaí to use force. “We feel we are criminalised for doing the job, and stigmatised.”
He pointed to the introduction during the pandemic of spit hoods, which are placed over the head of an arrested person to prevent them spitting at gardaí.
“These were brought in because we were being spat at by people claiming they had Covid,” he said. “Go back and have a look at how much time the Policing Authority gave those hoods. It was as if we wanted them as a torture device.
“So I think you’ve created a climate – the Policing Authority, Gsoc, the Government and I’d say a good chunk of the media – where it’s assumed ‘the guards are up to no good’. And after years and years of that, [gardaí] are feeling the pressure. So they’re just reluctant to do things like using force because it’s one of those parts of the job now that is just so high risk. You’re risking your future, even if you’ve done nothing wrong.”
An experienced Dublin-based garda added: “We’ve been overly tolerant of some of these far-right people and that probably started during the pandemic. A core group of them were roaming all over the country looking for a rise out of us. The instruction was not to engage, not to steam in and arrest people because we didn’t want disturbances kicking off. But that has only emboldened them. And I think some of our own people [gardaí] maybe got used to that style of policing; doing everything you could to avoid stepping forward and confronting these [far-right] characters.”