Gardaí have no right to look into shopping bags at Covid-19 checkpoints

Garda Commissioner also tells Policing Authority spit hoods should not be used on minors

Gardaí had no right to look into people's shopping bags as they checked if people were complying with Covid-19 regulations but armed Garda members would continue to be used at checkpoints, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said.

He has also revealed that not only were some suspects spitting at the Garda during the Covid-19 crisis period, they were biting the inside of their mouth first resulting in saliva and blood being spat at some gardaí.

“We have individuals who, even after warnings, continue to spit or threaten to spit at ourselves or members of the public. Being spat on at any time is a disgusting thing. This time it involves the risk of transmission of a disease. We see individuals who deliberately bite the inside of their mouth, tongue or their lip so not only are they spitting saliva, they’re spitting blood. There are dangerous situations.”

Mr Harris told a meeting of the Policing Authority, held via video link, that spit hoods - devices placed over the head of an arrested suspect to prevent them spitting - had been introduced specifically for the Covid-19 policing operation.

This had been done because while spitting was “disgusting” at any time, it now carried an infection risk.

Mr Harris said while he accepted use of the hoods amounted to “use of force”, spitting incidents were increasing during the pandemic policing operation.

Policing Authority member Vicky Conway quizzed Mr Harris at length on human rights concerns that have been raised around the Garda's Covid-19 policing operation to ensure people in the Republic were complying with Government-imposed restrictions on travel and public gatherings.

Mr Harris agreed with Ms Conway that the spit hoods should not be used on minors. He added the hoods had only been used 15 times despite spitting attacks increasing.

He also told Ms Conway that while he had heard the Irish Council for Civil Liberties complaining they had reports people’s shopping bags were being checked by gardaí on the pretence it formed part of the Covid-19 compliance operation, this was the only report of that nature he had heard.

People, he said, had been overwhelmingly supportive of the Garda since the operation began but he made it clear gardaí had no right to check people’s shopping under the Covid-19 policing operation.

He cited a checkpoint on the N7 on Tuesday when, during a 17-hour long Garda operation, 11,454 vehicles has passed through.

Mr Harris said only 12 people had to be told to return home because they had not legitimate reason for the journey they were making.

“That’s illustrative of a high degree of compliance,” he said of the operation from 7am to 12 midnight on Tuesday.

Mr Harris said while there had been complaints that armed gardaí had been seen at Garda checkpoints, armed Garda members were being used as a resource at a time of extreme pressure on the Garda due to the pandemic policing operation demands.

He added some of the activity involving armed Garda members on the streets was aimed at organised and dangerous criminals, rather than Covid-19 checks. When armed gardaí were present at Covid-19 checkpoints they were supporting their frontline unarmed uniformed colleagues carrying out the checkpoints.

He added the armed members were part of units that had particular expertise about serious criminals and this has proven useful in recent weeks as policing organised crime has continued.

Guns and drugs had been seized from known criminals moving around in vehicles and in some cases prolific burglars had been spotted and arrested as they moved around in vehicles.

Ms Conway welcomed the Garda offering updates on how many arrests had been carried out under the Covid-19 compliance operation since new powers were granted to the force on April 8th.

A total of 76 people had been arrested to April 25th as they were more than 2km from home without being able to show they were making an essential journey and after they were not receptive to being urged by gardaí to go home.

However, Ms Conway said the power to make such arrests was only one of five new powers granted to the Garda and she asked Mr Harris that updates be shared regularly on all aspects of the enforcement operation.

She said the powers were “quite exceptional”, underlining the need for full regular updates about how often all of them were being used. Mr Harris accepted they were “extra ordinary” powers that put Irish policing into “unchartered waters”.

However, Ms Conway said it was important the powers were not used against people more often based on their ethnicity, gender, socio economic background or the fact they had had regular dealings with the Garda pre-dating Covid-19.

Mr Harris said if people complied - and agreed to end a non-essential journey when spoken to by gardaí - they were in compliance with the regulations and no offence arose. It followed that their names and addresses would not be taken and because of that there was a “blank spot” in how the Garda could record trends around who was being stopped.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times

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