Rural garda stations were closed during the recession because community policing in Ireland "has been undervalued and marginalised", the joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice has said.
However, in a report on the issue of rural crime the committee stopped short of recommending that closed stations be re-opened, instead recommending that more community gardaí be deployed to the areas concerned.
The report concludes that the closure of garda stations exacerbated “social isolation in rural areas”.
“Community policing promotes local problem-solving strategies to address the underlying causes of crime, whilst also addressing the fear of crime by providing reassurance to communities,” said committee chair Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD.
“Proactively addressing problems within communities, rather than reacting to crimes already committed, should become the organising principle of police activity.”
The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) welcomed the committee’s recommendation that rural garda task forces be established “to tackle specific issues” as has happened in isolated parts of the UK.
IFA deputy president Richard Kennedy said the mooted task forces could reassure fearful residents in the regions.
“Many farmers and rural dwellers live in real fear for their safety, which is compounded by geographic and service isolation,” he said. “Theft of valuables from rural homes, and of livestock and machinery from farms is also a major concern.”
The report, which makes 20 recommendations, follows a series of meetings the committee held with gardaí, PSNI officers and stakeholders from community and farming groups. It says gardaí are increasingly dealing with non-crime incidents, such as social crises and mental health cases, because health and social services are not available to intervene after hours.
Crisis intervention teams made up of policing, social care and mental health professionals should be created and be on call, the committee said.
The committees other conclusions and recommendations included:
- Community policing should not be seen as ‘a marginal or specialist’ activity within the Garda but rather the core of Irish policing.
- The redeployment of community gardaí to other duties during the recession needs to be reversed.
- While Garda numbers were increasing, ‘considerably greater’ progress was required and those already in the force needed to be redeployed from desk jobs to frontline policing.
- The Garda should reach out to rural communities more on social media.
- More funding should be made available for text alert schemes that alert people in rural areas to crimes and suspicious activity in their community.
The committee also says that as Brexit approaches, a full review of policing and other agencies – including customs and agricultural inspectors – along the Border is required.
At one point in the report the committee says the true extent of rural crime was not known because there had been problems with the accuracy of crime data. It recommended that a new “rural crime” classification be created to track trends with rural crime.
However, Mr Ó Caoláin acknowledged that no evidence had been found to suggest crime rates in rural Ireland were any more inaccurate or underestimated than crime rates in urban areas. While the official crime figures have never indicated a very serious, or significantly worsening, crime problem in rural Ireland, many community and farming organisations say crimes in the regions are not being reported because people are too fearful.