Stop and search: Garda harassment or crime-fighting?

Inner-city teenagers say they are constantly stopped by gardaí, even when wearing their school uniform

The behaviour of members of An Garda Síochána is in focus at the moment. Trust in policing has been damaged by a number of controversies. Children in the inner city were ahead of the curve on this distrust. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The behaviour of members of An Garda Síochána is in focus at the moment. Trust in policing has been damaged by a number of controversies. Children in the inner city were ahead of the curve on this distrust. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Every day in parts of Dublin, teenagers are searched and talked to by gardaí as though they are adult criminals. I see this occasionally as I walk through Summerhill or the North Strand and, whenever I write about teenagers in the inner city, it comes up casually in conversation as part of their day-to-day reality.

“The justice system is not set up for children, it’s set up for adults,” says Nichola Mooney, a team leader at the Rialto Youth Project. “How young people are questioned [by gardaí] is the same as how adults are questioned . . . by adults trained to deal with adult criminals.”

The behaviour of members of An Garda Síochána is in focus at the moment. Trust in policing has been damaged by the whistleblower crisis, the Jobstown trial and the penalty points fiasco. Kids in the inner city were ahead of the curve on this distrust.

* * * * * 

In another Dublin youth centre, I meet five teenagers to talk about their experiences of being stopped and searched by gardaí. These are all, their youth workers stress, good kids involved in youth services, who are still in school and are not connected to criminality. Their names have been changed. They are all aged 16, except Declan who is 14. The nature of the interactions with gardaí they describe is corroborated by any youth workers I’ve spoken to.

What happened the last time they were stopped by gardaí?

“When I got pulled the last time they threw me up against the wall and said, ‘Empty your pockets’,” says Declan. “They flicked the hat off my head and told me to take off my jacket and my shoes. You’re just standing there confused.”

“I was about to go home [one day],” says Rob, “and the police came up and asked our names. The girl cop said, ‘We could arrest you now.’ Why? ‘Because I don’t like the way you look. That’s a stupid hat, f**k off home before we arrest you.’”

“I got stopped yesterday,” says Kyle. “I was walking home with my little sister and there was a checkpoint and they searched me. She’s seven. I had to tell her to wait over by the bush as they searched my pockets, looked at my phone. ‘What’s that?’ ‘Um, it’s a phone?’”

“Our little brothers and sisters see us being stopped all the time,” says Conor. “They’re scared of guards.”

“My brother’s nine,” says Declan. “He’ll be stopped soon.”

When did they start being stopped? “Around the age of 13 it starts,” says Kyle. “When they think you look old enough, they think, ‘He looks easy enough to mess about with’.”

“It doesn’t happen as much to girls,” says Sarah. “I was walking down [the road] and they stopped us but I was with him [Conor] and another girl. They didn’t check us at all, just him.”

It can happen very suddenly and without warning, says Rob. “You might be walking down the road with your friends and they come over and shove you up against the wall.” 

* * * * *

Solicitor Gareth Noble has an interest in how some young people are treated as criminal suspects by gardaí from a young age. “It happens in certain parts of the city,” he says. “Certain communities are much more likely to be targeted for stop and search provisions. It’s not happening too much in Ballsbridge or Dalkey. ”

What are the legal prerequisites for a search? “All the gardaí have to demonstrate is that they have a reasonable cause to believe that the search is required,” says Noble. “They might say that a person looked nervous or suspicious or was acting in a strange manner.”

Gardaí themselves don’t always seem to understand the rules, he says. “I was in the Children’s Court [recently] and a case was dismissed because the reason [the garda had] stopped and searched this guy was that he had asked him his name and then established on the Garda Pulse system that this guy had previously been subjected to a search… The judge said, ‘Wait a second, you have to have a [current] reason you’re subjecting him to a search,’ and he said, ‘Oh, but that would be standard practice’.”

It’s an unwise practice, says Noble, because it can turn teenagers into criminals. It’s not unusual to find a teenager in the Children’s Court up on an “obstruction of justice” charge, he says, “and it’s nothing to do with anything found during the course of the search but all about the interaction with the gardaí. It’s certainly led to a number of children I’ve seen being up in front of the courts . . . Among juveniles, stop and search is a real live issue and it’s a continuing issue that presents itself in the Children’s Courts. It’s very corrosive in terms of the relationship that’s necessary between gardaí and the local community.”

* * * * *

What do gardaí do when they stop a teenager? “They ask your name, your address and if they don’t think that’s enough they search you,” says Conor.

“They usually search you first,” says Declan.

“They do, yeah,” says Rob.

“They sometimes just push you against the wall,” says Declan.

Do they say why they’re stopping them? “They try to come up with a stupid reason,” says Kyle.

“But they don’t always tell you,” says Conor.

“They get angry when we ask questions sometimes and they start roughing us up,” says Rob. “They get angry if you try to contradict them even when you know you’re right.”

Why do they think they’re being stopped? “I think it’s because it’s easy,” says Conor. “Sometimes you’re stopped and you can actually see drug dealers selling across the road. You look at them and look back at the guards and say, ‘Are you for real?’”

“I think they do it when they’re bored,” says Rob.

“They try and embarrass you,” says Conor. “And it is embarrassing. If you get stopped and your ma’s friend sees that – she’s going to tell your ma. They’re basically naming and shaming you.”

“They make a show of you,” says Rob.

“And word spreads,” says Conor. “Chinese whispers. One minute you’re being stopped by the guards in your school uniform, the next people are saying that you’re a high-ranking drug dealer.”

* * * * *

Prof Dermot Walsh, an expert in policing at the University of Kent’s law school and a former member of Ireland’s National Crime Council, has been watching this phenomenon for decades.

“When I was on the National Crime Council we investigated this problem but the only thing that came of it was confirmation [that it exists] – the extent to which gardaí treat these young people as trash . . . not fellow human beings who are deserving of respect . . . It was recognised that these methods were unacceptable and counterproductive and something needed to be done about it.”

He sighs.

“But if you’ve been doing much work on policing in the country, you’ll know that it’s an institution that’s almost impervious to change, especially with respect to how individual police officers behave on the ground when they know that no one else is looking and when they know no one else cares . . . The Garda mindset sees these young people as the enemy.”

* * * * *

How do teenagers respond to being stopped and searched like that? “You start thinking about what you’re wearing,’” says Conor. “Can I wear black? Will I wear this? You try not to dress like a northsider. If I’m going somewhere else I try and dress like a southsider.”

“But then if you’re wearing nice clothes they say, “Did you get that money from drugs?’” says Declan.

“Recently a guard stopped and searched me in my school uniform,” says Conor. “‘Who are you, what are you doing?’ ‘Uh, I’m going to school.’ ‘Are you mitching?’ ‘No, I’m actually going to school.’ They searched my bag and pockets. You worry about what you wear and then you get stopped in your school uniform.”

“We should have a right to wear what we want to wear,” says Rob.

Do they feel angry?

“In situations [with gardaí] where I know I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m cool,” says Rob. “I know I didn’t do anything. I know not to panic . . . Guards can put us into court for screaming at them. If you were to elbow a garda, they’d say ‘that’s assault’ but throwing us into a wall isn’t assault.”

“I run sometimes because I don’t want to be dragged out in the street and have everyone talking about me,” says Declan.

“You get sick of it,” says Kyle. “So I go on little trips out of the area just to avoid them.”

“If you keep getting stopped you might snap,” says Conor. “You do your best to stay calm.”

“I think they want a reaction out of you,” says Rob. 

* * * * *

In 2009 Nichola Mooney, the artist Fiona Whelan and other community workers in the Rialto Youth Project launched the Policing Dialogues project. It came out of another initiative started by Whelan in which young people discussed power and recounted their experience of powerlessness. “We were struck by how many of those experiences were about interactions with the gardaí,” says Whelan.

They started another project with the collaboration of current Deputy Garda Commissioner John Twomey, who was then the chief superintendent of the Dublin South Central district. They collected anonymous stories of negative interactions with gardaí and then, at an event in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, 26 soon-to-be deployed new gardaí read these pieces aloud.

“They wore their uniforms,” says Nichola Mooney. “There was some discussion about that . . . Once you’re in a uniform you have power already, by virtue of the uniform. We agreed in the end that they would leave the ASPs [batons] and the hats aside.”

“That was John Twomey’s idea,” says Whelan.

It was a powerful experience. Some gardaí were moved. Others were defensive. It led to an intense discussion and a residency at The Lab in Foley Street at which more accounts of police interactions were collected, this time from beyond Rialto.

“Some were about actual police violence,” says Whelan. “But the main trend was subtle, insidious, constant disrespect and what a constant assumption of guilt does to your soul.”

Whelan and Mooney began to think more about the shortfalls in Garda training. Many of the gardaí in the accounts they collected didn’t live in the area they policed and were ill-equipped to deal with the complexities.

“They’re on the front line trying to do their job,” says Mooney, “and they often don’t understand the historical legacy of how areas like this have been neglected.”

With the help of gardaí they created two training modules for gardaí in Dublin South Central using what they’d learned. “We signed off on it,” says Whelan. “It was public. We had a press release. Then in the budget of 2010/11 all Garda training was cut . . . When Templemore reopened a year or so ago we wrote back and [reminded them that] ‘this was approved’.”

The programme has yet to be put in place. The deputy commissioner, John Twomey, did not respond to requests for an interview. 

* * * * *

Do the teens in the youth centre see any reason for gardaí to stop and search people?

They discuss this among themselves for a while.

“There are some kids carrying drugs,” says Conor.

“They think it’ll be easy money but it catches them in the end,” says Kyle.

Maybe some searches are needed, they conclude, but they think gardaí would get more out of them by treating them as human beings not suspects. They appreciate gardaí who do just that.

“The JLOs are nice,” says Conor. A JLO is a juvenile liaison officer.

“And when a garda asks what football team you support or something like that, treats you like a person, that’s nice,” says Rob. “You can get along with them. You’re happier to talk to them then.”

“Remember the one on the quays on his bike?” says Declan.

“He was cool, he was,” says Kyle. “He was asking loads of questions but we were asking him questions as well. I think he was a southside guard. He knew we were having a laugh, that we were doing no harm.”

* * * * *

Everyone agrees community policing is crucial. “It fosters good relations if it’s done properly within communities.” says Gareth Noble. “The Garda diversion projects do hugely important work, forging connections between young people and the police. But all that good work is set at naught if children have a negative experience of an aggressive and unnecessary search.”

It’s really important, say Nichola Mooney, that teenagers are treated with respect. “The amount of conversations I’ve had with young people, particularly young men, who are frustrated and angry and upset underneath it all. They have to hold themselves in all the time. ‘Why do I keep getting stopped? I’m just walking to school.’ . . . Young people are different, developmentally and socially [than adults]. They have different struggles with mental health, drugs, poverty and oppression . . . Our argument is that [the garda] is the adult in the situation so it’s their responsibility to dictate the tone of the conversation.”

Fiona Whelan sighs. “When I was growing up I had a sense of entitlement to public space,” she says. “I felt I could go wherever I wanted and I felt free. These kids are made feel like they’re trespassing all the time.”

She hopes that in the age of Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission inquiries and whistleblower scandals that there’s more appetite for institutional change now.

Dermot Walsh is not so sure. He thinks that historically Garda Síochána members see themselves as guardians of a hierarchical State, not the servants of local communities. “There’s been a sense of crisis in policing here for several decades now,” he says. “We had the Morris tribunal [into alleged police corruption] and everything was supposed to be fundamentally reformed. . . I wouldn’t be surprised if you come back in a few years’ time to find that nothing has changed, that there’s still shenanigans going on between the upper echelons of the Garda and the Government, that there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism for dealing with corruption and abuse and that these kids are still being harassed by the guards.”

* * * * *

How often are they stopped by police?

“Every second day,” says Kyle.

“More for me,” says Declan (the others admit that for some reason Declan is stopped more). “I’ll be 50 before they stop, I reckon.”

Are you less inclined to trust gardaí?

“Yeah,” says Rob. “I don’t feel safe around police.”

“You should feel free to walk through your own area and feel safe,” says Conor. “If guards were allowed guns in Ireland, I’d be really scared.”

Would they call gardaí if they needed them or witnessed a crime? “You wouldn’t go to them,” says Conor, and the others nod.

What would you like gardaí to know?

“That they don’t have to stop and search us,” says Rob. “They could just ask us questions, talk to us. There’s no need to make a show of us on front of the people in our area, making us look like scumbags or criminals.”

“We’re not adults,” says Conor. “Should we carry a sign saying, ‘We’re under 18. What are you throwing us against a wall for?’ I’d like to be treated like their kids are treated. That’s what I’d like. If their kids were being stopped I think it would end soon enough.”

An Garda Síochána declined to provide a spokesperson to comment on these issues, and the Garda Representative Association did not respond to a request for comment.

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