Policing during coronavirus: ‘Morale has never been higher’
Gardaí welcome new shift patterns and support from public
A vast reorganisation of much of An Garda Síochána in response to the spread of Covid-19 means Garda members are more likely than anyone, with the possible exception of healthcare workers, to fall ill.
When the scale of the crisis became clear at the start of March, Garda management introduced major changes that would ordinarily take many months to implement.
In addition to the creation of a full-time public order unit for Dublin, a large proportion of the force was tasked with ensuring the welfare of vulnerable and elderly people in the community. This involves doing such mundane tasks as collecting groceries and medication or just chatting to an elderly resident on the doorstep for a few minutes.
There was some muted resistance to this, with members arguing there were many local volunteers willing to do such jobs, allowing gardaí to get on with police work. But, for the most part, members were eager to help in any way they could.
“We didn’t have to be told what to do. We all just got into our cars, and set off visiting chemists and accumulating names of vulnerable people who we should call to,” a Tipperary garda said.
“We all come from communities and we all felt a sense of caring for our people, and a duty to do whatever we could, no matter how simple to help.”
A garda in the Border region said members were “a bit apprehensive” about their own safety especially due to shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
But, he added, morale has never been higher. “Everybody is behind everybody. The members are ready to step up. They understand there is a crisis, that we will be asked to step out of our comfort zone.”
The message from Garda Headquarters is two-fold: gardaí are there to help the vulnerable but normal police work will continue. Despite the restructuring, detective and specialist units are still doing their regular jobs. This includes anti-gangland, drugs, cybercrime, and domestic and sexual assault work.
“None of them have been put back into uniform or anything like that,” a spokesman said.
So far, a handful of gardaí have been diagnosed with Covid-19. Management is not releasing the exact number but insist infections have not affected operational capability.
To mitigate the spread of the virus, a new 12 hours on, 12 hours off roster has been introduced, meaning there is no overlap between shifts. The practice of having some gardaí working across two units has also been abolished. “People are buddied up and working as little islands so they are not contaminating other units,” the spokesman said.
Many members have welcomed the predictability of the new shift system and hope it will be retained after the crisis.
While many gardaí were dismayed by the large numbers of people congregating in outdoor spaces over the weekend in defiance of HSE guidelines, they have also been comforted by the social solidarity on show.
They are also relieved to see no significant rise in public order incidents and, according to the Garda Press Office, “absolutely no reports of looting”.
Despite reports of burglars targeting unoccupied pubs, the Garda said it had not seen an uptick in such incidents but it was monitoring the situation.
Legislation passed last week will give the Garda broad new emergency powers to shut down events and locations and detain people for public health reasons.
Rank and file gardaí have yet to be briefed on the extent of these powers or how they should be used but senior sources say they will be deployed only as a last resort.
Nonetheless, some gardaí are worried about the rapid introduction of such extensive powers. “Going in a house and shutting down a party, these are draconian measures that are well outside our comfort zone. There’s some anxiety about that,” said a Cavan garda.
For now, according to management, the focus is on maintaining “high visibility policing” to reassure people and to gently urge them to follow social distancing guidelines.
“We don’t have power to enforce social distancing,” the spokesman said. “It’s a request. It’s a social responsibility.”