Proactive contact is key to policing diverse society, says report’s author

Forty per cent of frontline gardaí surveyed said they frequently heard disparaging remarks about Travellers in their workplace

The study found that gardaí who interacted with Travellers and other ethnic minorities in non-adversarial matters have more positive views of those communities. Photograph:  Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The study found that gardaí who interacted with Travellers and other ethnic minorities in non-adversarial matters have more positive views of those communities. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

 

Figures showing some frontline gardaí’s low opinion of the Travelling community are concerning but they should not be surprising.

Gardaí are members of society and over the years many studies have shown that discrimination against Travellers is deeply ingrained in this society.

What is perhaps more concerning is that negative attitudes towards the minority community increased after joining the force.

According to the results of a study into garda racial attitudes published in today’s Irish Times, 10 per cent of frontline officers surveyed said they had a “poor view” of Travellers before joining the force. This increased to 20 per cent when asked about their views now.

Meanwhile, the proportion of frontline gardaí surveyed with “good” or “very good” views of Travellers before and after joining remained the same – zero per cent.

This is likely down to the nature of the interaction between frontline gardaí and Travellers. Seventy per cent of garda interaction with the community was to arrest one of its members, compared to 20 per cent of instances where Travellers were the victim of a crime.

The study, which was published earlier this year, relies on interviews conducted with gardaí between 2012-14. Interviews were carried out with 182 gardaí from across the organisation, comprising 111 ethnic liaison officers (ELOs) and 71 frontline gardaí.

One of the study’s main findings is that gardaí who interacted with Travellers and other ethnic minorities in non-adversarial matters have more positive views of those communities. Garda ELOs, now known as diversity officers, who proactively interacted with Travellers, reported much higher opinions of the community than their frontline colleagues. The lesson, according to the study’s author, Insp David McInerney, is that proactive, non-confrontational contact is the key to policing a diverse society.

‘Different side’

“I see a different side to things, and now get on very well with a lot of those that I was always complaining about,” one ELO told the author of their interactions with the Travelling community.

“The only way you can make progress is by respecting them,” another said. “A good opportunity for this is at the time of death in their community, when you can go and pay your respects to the families. You also get to meet and know the different family members, which can be quite an impossible task. I don’t mind working with them.”

Of concern to garda management, however, might be how some ELOs said they built trust within the Travelling community: through the use of “discretion” in not executing arrest warrants.

“I get nothing but respect from them. They know I could lock up many of them, but I just keep my mouth shut,” one ELO said.

One Dublin ELO intervened to prevent the arrest by his colleagues of a black man who he knew suffered from a mental illness.

Another Dublin ELO dealing with an illegal immigrant who had been the subject of a vicious racist assault, ignored the victim’s illegal status and did not alert the Garda National Immigration Bureau. “It turned out that he was illegal, but I pretended I did not know this,” the Garda said.

Disparaging comments

People from ethnic minorities interviewed for the study expressed the view that an understanding of their culture and traditions by gardaí was key to a successful policing strategy. One member of the Travelling community suggested gardaí live on a halting site for a while “and see what a Traveller’s life is really like”.

A further area of concern highlighted by the study is the prevalence of “racially disparaging” comments made by some gardaí among themselves in their workplace.

Forty per cent of frontline gardaí surveyed said they frequently heard disparaging remarks about Travellers. The figure for remarks about the Roma and black community was 26 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.

“The reality is that racially disparaging comments are quite common within the garda workplace from the perspectives of both ELOs and [frontline officers],” Insp McInerney writes.

Furthermore, the vast majority of frontline officers surveyed (83 per cent) did not take any action on hearing such remarks and zero per cent said they would challenge the behaviour. Twenty eight per cent of ELOs said they would take no action, with the same number responding they would challenge the behaviour.

Insp McInerney said: “An Garda Síochána’s relationship with the indigenous Traveller community proves that a great deal more has to be done to challenge racism against this group both from within and outside the Garda institution.”

In the Garda’s defence, and according to a lengthy statement sent to The Irish Times, much has been done to combat racism and discrimination in the force since the interviews were conducted.

This includes the establishment of initiatives such as “Traveller dialogue days” to help “break down barriers through communication, dialogue and collaboration”, a Garda Traveller Advisory Group to build up “a culture of respect” in the force, and increased collaboration with representatives of the community.

Insp McInerney’s study was aimed at evaluating the role of the ELO programme, which he established in 2001.

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