Policing Authority advises against strong Garda powers to enforce restrictions

Other European countries have brought in more stringent powers for Covid-19 rules

In the authority’s report it has emerged that 62 enforcement actions have been taken by gardai against people. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

In the authority’s report it has emerged that 62 enforcement actions have been taken by gardai against people. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The Republic should not follow the example of other European countries who have introduced strong powers for their police forces to enforce Covid-19 restrictions, the Policing Authority has said.

Its remarks have come as the Government was considering introducing fines for people breaching some Covid-19 measures and restrictions, including the need to wear face masks.

At present thousands of Garda checkpoints were being operated across the State even though gardaí have no power to take action against people they meet at the checkpoints who are leaving their home counties against public health advice.

The authority explained while some of Ireland’s closest neighbours had decided more stringent enforcement powers were required as the pandemic has progressed, the Irish Government had resisted this and should continue in that vein.

“Throughout this period, the Authority has held the view that emergency powers for the Garda Síochána should be at the minimum level possible,” Policing Authority chairman Bob Collins has said in the authority’s latest report examining the Garda’s policing operation for Covid-19.

‘Little evidence’

“There is a genuine and well-founded concern that extensive new powers for gardaí might not be a universal problem solver. Neighbouring jurisdictions have given added, and progressively more stringent, powers to police services but there is little evidence that, in and of itself, such a policy eradicates any undesirable behaviours.”

In the authority’s report it has emerged that 62 enforcement actions have been taken by gardaí against people, mostly those involved in the pub trade, since the last report on September 11th.

Gardaí have been carrying out inspections at pubs and other licensed premises and have the power to begin a criminal prosecution against them if they are flouting restrictions, including keeping customer records for possible contract tracing and adhering to reduced opening hours, among other measures.

The authority added while it has “reservations” about the Garda’s use of anti-spit hoods, there use had continued to decline and the authority welcomed this. Spit hoods are mesh coverings that can be placed over a suspect’s head to prevent them spitting or coughing at gardaí.

While the authority has condemned spitting and coughing attacks directed at Garda members, it believes spit hoods and inhumane and wants their use stopped. As well as having general human rights-based concerns, the authority is also concerned the hoods were being used on a small number of juveniles and people who appeared to have mental health issues.

The hoods were used on suspects only five times from September 1st to 26th. This compared with a peak of 30 times in April and 36 in May.

New vigour

In its latest report, the authority said when many crime types plummeted during the strict lock-down period, some communities had been able to reclaim spaces from people who usually dealt drugs there. More recently, however, that street-level drug dealing had re-emerged with “a new vigour”.

The authority has continued to report very positively about the Garda’s approach to sexual violence and domestic violence during the pandemic. However, the Garda still needed to make it clear that of domestic or sexual violence incidents took place at social gatherings or events that should not have been taking place due to Covid-19, victims should come forward without any reluctance.

In the period between September 11th and Friday October 9th, when the latest Policing report published on Thursday was sent to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD (FG) spit hoods were used by the Garda on eight occasions, or twice per week.

Some 6,400 Garda checkpoints were conducted under Operation Fanacht, the Garda’s Covid-19 policing operation, and over 7,800 inspections of licensed premises were carried out.

Pub inspections

Garda members began inspecting pubs for Covid-19 compliance, under a special operation called Operation Navigation, on July 3rd and since then proceedings, for alleged non-compliance, have been commenced 231 times. More than 38,000 visits were made to pubs for inspections, with 57 per cent of the licensed premises found to be closed.

The authority noted that the number of inspections had fallen, from almost 8,000 on the first weekend of the operation in July to “under 2,000” during the last weekend of September.

Excluding Operation Navigation, which relates to licensed premises, there have been 368 incidents since the pandemic began in spring to June 28th that saw gardaí open enforcement proceedings against people.