Garda ‘will never know’ whether harm was caused over mishandling of 999 calls by its members

Report finds ‘numerous failures’ which prevented identification of victims of possible sexual assault

An Garda Siochána “will never know” whether harm was caused to some people because of the cancellation and mishandling of 999 calls by members of the force, a senior officer has said.

Appearing before the Policing Authority, Deputy Garda Commissioner Anne Marie McMahon was speaking after a new report highlighted how numerous failures in the handling of 999 calls prevented investigations and the identification of victims of possible sexual assault.

The report, by Derek Penman, the former chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland, carried out on behalf of the Policing Authority, identified “substantial shortcomings” in the Garda’s handling of emergency calls from members of the public.

Ms McMahon disclosed that 141 crime incidents were not recorded.

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She acknowledged that the failure to follow up on calls to the 999 emergency number potentially resulted in some crimes being missed and not being investigated, and agreed with the findings of the report that this may have resulted in people suffering harm.

“In some cases, we will never know,” she said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the Garda Síochána’s mishandling of 999 emergency calls from members of the public in recent years was “very worrying”.

The Taoiseach described the failures as “a serious issue”.

Mr Penman found in his report that failings in the handling of 999 calls to the Garda prevented investigations and the identification of victims and perpetrators of possible serious sexual assaults.

He said that it was “not possible to determine whether serious harm occurred in incidents where callers or potential victims were not identified”.

The deputy commissioner told the authority that the Garda had identified 37 incidents where a person indicated harm during the call and that, in follow-up, it had made contact with 32 people.

“We have engaged with them and obviously the crime incidents have been recorded,” she said.

She told the authority that the Garda had made every effort to determine and try to “give the callers the opportunity for us to correct that situation”.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris told the authority that the disciplinary process against individual gardaí responsible for the failures was under way and he acknowledged failures by the Garda.

Mr Harris said there were “missed opportunities to engage with callers, even if there wasn’t a crime,” and the force had identified “cases we regard as poor behaviour by Garda personnel.”

The controversy emerged after it was discovered that more than 200,000 calls to the 999 number were improperly cancelled between January 2019 and October 2020. More than 3,000 of the calls cancelled on the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system related to domestic violence.

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

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.

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”.

He said that it was “essential” that the Garda addresses issues identified in this report “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 of receiving the quality of service it deserves from its policing service”.

Speaking further on Prime Time on RTÉ on Thursday night, Mr Collins said he was “a great deal more confident” in the service now than when the report was commissioned.

“I’m a great deal more reassured in terms of the changes they have made, the steps they will continue to take... There are more staff. There is gradually more supervision. I think that is an area that needs greater urgency. There is far greater awareness within the Garda of the risks for the individuals involved and for the organisation itself.”

Among the examples identified in Mr Penman’s report was a call from a member of the public who told gardaí they were witnessing what they believed to be a “serious sexual crime in progress”.

The caller was not kept on the line and gardaí were unable to determine whether a crime had taken place, but Mr Penman said it was “feasible” that a serious sexual crime was committed.

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

An incorrect address was provided but the call was not kept open so gardaí were unable to re-establish contact with the child.

Mr Penman concluded that the seriousness of the allegations and the potential vulnerability of the child and parent should have ensured the call was “not cancelled but instead passed for urgent investigation”.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

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