Garda Commissioner apologises to domestic violence victims whose 999 calls were cancelled

Women’s Aid says controversy over Garda emergency calls ‘extremely troubling’

 Garda Commissioner Drew Harris  said the problem of cancelled domestic violence 999 calls had been caused by “technological and procedural failings” as well as gardaí “not adhering” to practices set down for combating domestic violence. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said the problem of cancelled domestic violence 999 calls had been caused by “technological and procedural failings” as well as gardaí “not adhering” to practices set down for combating domestic violence. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has apologised to domestic violence victims whose emergency calls for help were not met with the kind of policing response they were entitled to.

Mr Harris issued the apology on behalf of An Garda Síochána when addressing a public meeting of the Policing Authority on Thursday. He was apologising after it emerged just over 3,100 emergency calls made by domestic violence victims to 999 were “cancelled” between 2019 and last October. Some of the calls he said were “harrowing”.

Women’s Aid said the cancellation by Garda personnel of domestic violence calls was “extremely troubling”. Its chief executive Sarah Benson said when a domestic violence victim called the Garda that contact could be “life changing ... depending on how the call is dealt with”.

A large number of domestic violence victims - including vulnerable women and some children - whose calls were not dealt with properly, or at all, reached out for emergency help during periods of strict lock-down last year.

Many were trapped at home with abusers during that period, when An Garda Síochána was assuring victims they were prioritising domestic violence cases during the pandemic.

Mr Harris has now said the Garda force had put in a very significant effort last year to tackle violence and abuse in the home and to prosecuted perpetrators, the cancelled calls notwithstanding. He urged victims to reach out to the Garda, insisting they would get help.

Earlier on Thursday, it emerged chairman of the authority, Bob Collins, had been very critical of senior Garda officers over the controversy when he met them behind closed doors last month. He said there had been an “unacceptable” delay of six months, until April, by the Garda in informing the authority about the growing controversy inside the force.

In remarks to Mr Harris and his senior team of officers at last month’s private meeting, Mr Collins also made known his “deep dissatisfaction and significant concern” amid an “unsatisfactory level of engagement” by the Garda on the issue.

The minutes of that private meeting have just become available and Mr Harris appeared before a public meeting of the authority on Thursday afternoon, where he addressed the controversy.

“On behalf of An Garda Síochána I want to apologise to those victims,” Mr Harris said. “They are among the most vulnerable people in society and when some victims of domestic abuse called for our assistance they did not always receive the professional service we aim to deliver and victims are entitled to expect.”

Mr Harris said all of the 3,120 domestic violence calls that had been classified as “cancelled” were still being reviewed and a full account would be provided when it was available. The Garda was also contacting domestic violence victims who may have been impacted.

As those individual cases were being worked through any actions required would be taken. This included prosecuting suspects, offering supports to victims and making any referrals to the child and family agency Tusla.

He also told the Policing Authority meeting the problem of cancelled domestic violence 999 calls had been caused by “technological and procedural failings” as well as gardaí “not adhering” to practices set down for combating domestic violence.

The meeting heard that when some 999 calls were taken, the wrong names, phone numbers and addresses were recorded by those taking the calls, meaning gardaí could not find addresses where it was alleged crimes were underway.

Last autumn a Garda audit found 3,120 domestic violence calls to 999 had been marked as “cancelled”. An internal Garda investigation commenced late last year and while it was ongoing, interim findings released on Thursday found some 35 per cent of the 3,120 cancelled calls had been cancelled legitimately, usually when multiple calls were received about the same incident.

Some 20 per cent of cases resulted in a Garda response on the day, but the call was marked as cancelled and never recorded on the Garda’s Pulse crime database. That failure to record the details is of significant concern because it means early warning signs of domestic violence calls from victims, or a pattern of increasingly serious incidents, were lost.

In 45 per cent of the 3,120 calls, their details have been sent to Garda divisions for an explanation about what happened in each case. And in 10 per cent of cases, the estimated 300 domestic violence victims have been contacted by gardaí. A spokesman for An Garda Síochána said no serious adverse outcomes for victims had been identified because of the cancelling of calls.

Aside from the domestic violence calls that were cancelled, other calls relating to ‘priority 1’ crimes and incidents were also cancelled. Priority 1 calls are those related to crimes such as burglary, assaults and sexual crimes as well as domestic violence.

Between the start of 2019 and last October some 1.4 million calls were made to 999, of which 163,778 were ‘priority 1’ calls. Of those ‘priority 1’ calls, some 22,595 were cancelled, or 14 per cent.

Mr Collins said if a large number of those cancelled calls were found to have been cancelled inappropriately, as had been the case with the domestic violence calls, that was a very serious matter and raised concerns about how the Garda organisation was treating priority calls made to 999.

Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys welcomed the apology by the Garda Commissioner.

She said any inappropriate cancellation of 999 calls is a very serious issue.

“The Garda Commissioner has assured me that when someone calls 999 now they can expect and trust the Garda Síochána will help and that’s the way it should be.”

She said new processes have been put in place “to ensure that this doesn’t happen again” but she was particularly concerned that anyone who’s vulnerable or experiencing domestic abuse who had gathered the courage to make a 999 call didn’t get the assistance they were seeking.

She said the Policing Authority’s examination of the issue is continuing and it is to prepare a report for her.

“The work being done by the Policing Authority now is exactly why we have a robust, independent oversight structure in our policing system,” she added.