Urgent action needed to restore force’s moral authority

Opinion: The report of the Garda Inspectorate is damning but the institution can be fixed

‘The Garda Inspectorate’s report has shifted the focus away from the behaviour of individual members – however problematic or exemplary – and onto the structures within which they operate.’ Above: Mark Toland, deputy chief inspector, Robert K Olson, chief inspector, and Debra Kirby, deputy chief inspector at the launch of the  report. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

‘The Garda Inspectorate’s report has shifted the focus away from the behaviour of individual members – however problematic or exemplary – and onto the structures within which they operate.’ Above: Mark Toland, deputy chief inspector, Robert K Olson, chief inspector, and Debra Kirby, deputy chief inspector at the launch of the report. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

I experienced a grim sense of deja vu as I read the Garda Inspectorate report on crime investigation that was published this week. In July 2002 the government approved a proposal submitted by the then minister for justice, equality and law reform, Michael McDowell, to set up an expert group on crime statistics.

The group was tasked with examining the collation of information relating to crimes reported to and recorded by An Garda Síochána and studying the way offences were counted and classified.

I was a member of this expert group and one of the signatories to its minority report. My view at the time was that while the group had gained some valuable insight into the policies drawn up to govern how crime data should be entered on to the Pulse computer system, it did not evaluate how these policies worked in practice. Nor did it come to any understanding of the extent to which reported crimes were not recorded, although this was a matter raised during the public consultation process which had been set in train after the group was established.

Despite numerous meetings and extensive liaison with the relevant authorities, I felt that we could come to no firm conclusions about the quality, reliability or accuracy of Garda data.

On foot of the expert group’s deliberations, the compilation and publication of crime statistics were handed over to the Central Statistics Office. This was a positive development but, as the Garda Inspectorate’s report makes clear, the fundamental issue of data quality was never satisfactorily addressed.

It is deeply disconcerting to be reminded that the information which is essential for any rounded assessment of Garda performance is unfit for purpose.

The Garda Inspectorate chose its words carefully when the report was launched, preferring not to speak of a dysfunctional police force or massaged crime figures. But the litany of concerns it raises, which go to the very heart of the policing function, leave no room for complacency. If there is any comfort to be drawn from the report, it is the message that there may still be time to rectify the situation, should the willingness exist to take the necessary steps.

New challenges

Until relatively recently policing was an area that excited little public interest. In the middle of the 20th century the rate of serious crime was so low that Ireland could be characterised, in Conor Brady’s memorable phrase, as a “policeman’s paradise”.

The criminally inclined always had the option of the emigrant boat. Indeed, in the 1960s more than twice as many Irish-born men were committed to prison in England and Wales as in Ireland. In a way the crime problem was exported.

More recent decades have placed antiquated policing structures under huge pressure. The arrival of heroin created a raft of challenges that persist to the present day. In the space of a generation, the number of homicides increased from one per month to one per week. The advent of the internet introduced opportunities for novel kinds of fraud and exploitation. Increasing numbers of abuse victims found the courage to come forward with their complaints. The national population grew rapidly and became ethnically diverse.

Policing has become more vastly more complex as a result, a trend that is unlikely to be reversed. As the inspectorate points out, the Garda organisation has not been reshaped in line with the changing external environment.

Some international surveys reveal comparatively high levels of delinquency, victimisation and serious crime in Ireland. The EU survey of crime and safety found that robberies were more common here than elsewhere in Europe. Another study found that rates of self-reported violence and property crime were unusually high.

The latest edition of the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics shows that the overall rate of recorded crime exceeded the European average as did the rates of homicide and rape.

This picture is even more troubling if, as the inspectorate’s report shows, the recorded crime figures systematically underestimate the extent of the problem.

An Garda Síochána has proven to be extremely resilient when it comes to weathering crises of public confidence. Many will remember the controversies associated with the interrogation practices of the “heavy gang”, the Kerry Babies case, the “blue flu”, the work of the Barr and Morris tribunals and a variety of high profile miscarriages of justice.

Current unease about interference with the penalty points system and the covert recording of telephone calls at Garda stations adds to the sense of an institution in serious difficulty.

Moral authority

Each time the wheel of scandal turns, it gains more traction. However, it is evidence of the high regard in which An Garda Síochána has traditionally been held that the cumulative impact of such events has not been devastating. People have been prepared to think that it is a case of bad apples rather than a rotten barrel. The inspectorate’s report has shifted the focus away from the behaviour of individual members – however problematic or exemplary – and on to the structures within which they operate.

When An Garda Síochána was established it was as a body of people who, according to its first commissioner, Michael Staines, would “succeed not by force of arms or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people”.

Unless urgent action is taken along the lines set out in the inspectorate’s wide-ranging report, there is a danger that this moral authority will be lost.

Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin

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