Handling of 999 call cancellations not a ‘whitewash’, says Harris

Garda Commissioner insists there will be ‘individual accountability’ for scandal

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris (centre) pictured as Minister for Justice Helen McEntee addressed the media following an  event to mark National Missing Persons Day at Croke Park on Wednesday.  Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris (centre) pictured as Minister for Justice Helen McEntee addressed the media following an event to mark National Missing Persons Day at Croke Park on Wednesday. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

 

The investigation into the cancellation of thousands of 999 calls by Garda personnel would not become a “whitewash” and disciplinary investigations into the actions of some of those involved are already underway, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said.

“We’re not putting this down to a systems failure... disciplinary investigations are ongoing,” he said. “There has been public accountability and, indeed, the Minister (for Justice Helen McEntee) has held me to account as well.

“So I feel as if I’ve very much been held to account for the actions of An Garda Síochána. In turn, I have held my senior officers, and other members of the organisation, to account.

“It’s certainly not a whitewash, there will be individual accountability. Lessons have been learned and will be applied.”

Harris believed the interim report into the controversy by UK policing expert Derek Penman, commissioned by the Policing Authority and published on Tuesday, had “vindicated” the Garda’s approach once the controversial practice of cancelling calls came to light late last year.

The force had reached out to victims and other people whose calls were cancelled and taken a “victim-centred approach” to that work in recent months.

Missed opportunities

However, speaking at an event in Croke Park, Dublin, to mark National Missing Persons Day, Mr Harris also accepted there were missed opportunities to investigate crimes, including breaching of barring orders, due to the way calls were cancelled.

The Penman interim report concluded many of the people recently contacted by the Garda because their calls were cancelled were surprised to hear from the force as they had received a response to their calls at the time, including gardaí calling to the scene of an incident.

However, when over 2,000 cancelled domestic violence calls were examined, some 114 crimes were found to have been missed by the Garda. Those crimes were not recorded properly and then were not investigated, even if gardaí went to the scene on the day the emergency call was made.

Of those 114 domestic violence crimes that went uninvestigated, 56 were “minor assaults”, 34 related to breaching of barring or related order, seven were “assaults causing harm”, six were criminal damage incidents and two were “threats to kill or cause serious harm”.

There was also one alleged sexual assault and one alleged rape case they went unreported over the two-year period because calls were cancelled.

The Irish Times understands the rape case involved a female calling 999 to report an historical rape. While the details were taken by the Garda call-taker and gardaí sought out the woman, she did not want to offer further details and the call was subsequently cancelled. However, the call should not have been cancelled and a range of follow-up contacts should have taken place.

Asked if there was a mistaken public perception that 999 calls to the Garda from members of the public went unanswered or were otherwise ignored, Mr Harris said “all 999 calls were answered” and that “many of those calls were attended to” even if later marked as “cancelled”.

While call-takers were permitted to legitimately cancel, or close, calls - especially if multiple calls were made to 999 about the same emergency - Mr Harris said the cancellation of other calls resulted in knock-on inattention. “This was prevalent in respect of domestic abuse particular,” he said.

Once those calls were marked “cancelled”, they were never recorded on the Garda’s PULSE database, resulting in the history of risk associated with a victim not being recorded.

The fact the calls were marked as “cancelled” also ensured those incidents were not captured in crime data, were not investigated and no follow-up checks were carried out on the victims.

Mr Harris insisted that in spite of 203,000 calls out of a total 1.4 million made to the Garda in 2019 and 2020 having been cancelled the public could have confidence now in the 999 service. Their call would be answered, he said.

“You will get through to a Garda call-taker, we will record the urgency and we will deal with it,” he said, though he accepted there had been “a failure on our part” in the way calls had previously been cancelled.