Future of the Garda: Gangs, gender-based violence and cybercrime pose challenges

Policing set to become more complex in better educated and more diverse Republic

The “watershed moments” for the Garda have mostly been big, spectacular and tragic. In the 1990s it was the IRA’s gunning down of Det Jerry McCabe in June 1996.

Just weeks later, it was the shooting dead of journalist Veronica Guerin by John Gilligan's drugs gang. More recently, it was the attack at the Regency Hotel in February 2016.

The latter led to years of reprisal killings in the Kinahan-Hutch feud. For today’s gardaí, it was the game changer, forcing them to beef up units to tackle gangland and embark on a relentless pursuit of the feuding gangs.

Since then, both gangs have been degraded, with dangerous players jailed or forced to flee. Some have escaped justice. But the waves of post-Regency gun attacks would not be possible now because too many have been jailed.

For decades, the Garda’s main challenge was dealing with Republican terrorist groups and armed drugs gangs. Looking ahead, however, the future will be more complex in a better educated and more diverse Republic.

The expectations are far, far higher. For years, we've had really low conviction rates. That just won't be tolerated in the next five, 10, 20 years

The current lull in gangland feud – with just one gun murder by organised crime last year – should not lull anyone into a false sense of security, says one highly experienced officer.

“If we don’t hit these young criminals, then they get stronger and more dangerous in just a few years,” he says. “And we will have to keep at that. You never quite know where the next major gang is going to pop up.

“Or which criminals are going to become the leaders of the next five to 10 years. But what we do know is that it’s a cycle and it never ends. So you cannot be complacent, it is always going to be with us,” he says.

A seismic shift is already under way on gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual: “More victims are willing to come forward now, and that’s a big change,” says another senior garda.

“These are crimes where victims can feel shame, which they shouldn’t, of course. But I think that is being stripped away and more and more women want to come forward.”

More public debate about such crimes raises the bar for the Garda Síochána: "The expectations are far, far higher. For years, we've had really low conviction rates. That just won't be tolerated in the next five, 10, 20 years."

This year, the Ashling Murphy killing is the latest watershed: "I've never seen an outpouring like that across the country. People were shocked and really angry," says another experienced officer.

Faced with such a justifiable “head of steam”, the Garda will have to intervene more deeply and earlier into domestic violence cases, rather than holding back and prosecuting later.

In future, the victim will have to be at the centre of everything the Garda does, rather than saying “the biggest items will be gangs, drugs, fraud, people trafficking or whatever”, says another officer.

Some work has already been done, with the creation of Garda Protective Services Units which deal with sexual crime, child and domestic abuse and online child exploitation, and other cases.

“The emphasis there is on encouraging the victim to come forward and stick with the case – not to drop out as a witness – and to be sympathetic and supportive to them,” the garda says.

The change in attitudes is changing the physical landscape. Fitzgibbon Street, the Garda station in Dublin’s north inner city, has been refurbished, but no longer has cells.

Instead, it is a “space for victims, and suspects will be questioned somewhere else. I think we’ll see a lot of that kind of approach and I think that will mean a lot more victims come forward,” the officer says.

Cybercrime is the latest challenge, which goes far beyond last year’s HSE high-profile ransomware attack: “There is a cyber element to almost every major crime these days.

Back in the day you had a fella jumping over a counter with a shotgun... Now you have a pimply teenager sitting in his bedroom, behind several layers of encryption

“If a guy is stabbed in Dublin tonight there’s a very good chance it will be recorded and sent around or uploaded on social media. And we have to be able to track that down,” says one Garda expert.

Meanwhile, online fraud is proliferating: “We spent our first 100 years keeping people safe from traditional crime. We’re going to spend our next 100 years keeping people safe from online crime,” says one senior officer.

The attractions of cybercrime, such as ransomware attacks, to criminals are numerous. There is less risk of being caught, the rewards are potentially huge, and many victims will not even make a complaint to the Garda.

“Back in the day you had a fella jumping over a counter with a shotgun and wearing a mask. Now you have a pimply teenager sitting in his bedroom, behind several layers of encryption,” says one garda.

Equally, the knowledge required is falling. Phishing kits to trick people into sharing sensitive data are sold on the darkweb for €60. After that, the criminals just need phone numbers, email addresses and to follow instructions.

Traditional criminal gangs are also beginning to get involved: “We now see gangs who are sectioning off some of their people and saying, ‘You go off and learn about that. There might be something in it for us,’” says one source.

Cybercrime increased dramatically during the pandemic, rising by 150 per cent. By one count, it cost just under €10 billion in 2020. “It’s not slowing down, it’s only building momentum all the time,” says one garda.

Even criminals not involved in cybercrime are using encryption to cover their tracks. Sophisticated mobile phones that automatically wipe memories if anyone tries to access them have become commonplace.

Additionally, criminals have realised that cryptocurrency is a much safer way of storing and moving money, rather than using bank accounts that are easier for the authorities to track.

If you are concerned at any stage about budgets [for technology], then you're on the back foot. The organised gangs have that budget

Such trends leave the Garda Cybercrime Bureau in a technological arms race with criminals. In recent years, the Garda has spent significant sums on decryption technology.

Equally, it is using blockchain analysis to track cryptocurrency movements from “wallets” around the world. This technology is, for example, being deployed against the gang who carried out last year’s HSE attack.

Even if the prospects of an arrest and conviction are remote, it means gardaí can freeze criminals’ assets or at least make it difficult for them to move them around: “But it is a constant battle.

“Technology is changing so quickly we have to make sure we’re not falling behind. If you are concerned at any stage about budgets, then you’re on the back foot. The organised gangs have that budget,” says one expert.

Technology is not the only battlefield. Ever changing data protection rules are a “major headache”, as illustrated by convicted murderer Graham Dwyer’s European case over the Garda’s right to access his mobile phone data.

Dwyer is expected to win his case in the European Court of Justice shortly, a ruling which would mean telecoms companies could no longer retain customer data for extended periods of time.

This will affect the Garda’s ability to track suspects’ movements: “This is one of the biggest challenges,” says a senior source. “We have to try to strike that balance between protecting privacy and bring perpetrators to justice.”

A major reorganisation is taking place within the Garda, designed to reduce bureaucracy and grant more autonomy to senior regional officers, with the number of Garda divisions falling from 28 to 19.

The larger divisions will have better resources, the plan promises, with more sergeants and inspectors on the ground on frontline policing, closer to the public.

For some, however, the 2020 Policing Plan will mean less community policing, not more. If the critics prove right, such an outcome will be a significant problem.

The Association of Garda Superintendents (AGSI) says it will inevitably result in policing resources being drawn to the busy areas in those larger divisions at the expense of rural locations.

But it not just the AGSI that has doubts. Pat Leahy, the recently retired assistant commissioner for Dublin, agrees. "[It] will negatively affect the community orientation of policing that has been the centrepiece of policing in Ireland.

“You’re sucking people out of rural areas when you do that. The argument has been made that they will be more mobile and more accessible. In reality, I don’t think that has been realised and I don’t think that is going to be realised.”

The new model will also mean fewer chief superintendents stationed around the country, another aspect criticised by Leahy. “Someone needs to be in charge at a local level,” he says.

“When you water that down, you take away the right of people to hold gardaí accountable. People want their local superintendent to be available to them,” he says.

Commissioner Drew Harris rejects the criticisms, saying his plan will boost community engagement, not reduce it, increase Garda visibility and stop trained gardaí being wasted on administrative tasks.

Young people have a higher awareness of the fundamental rights that we all have. That's a good thing and it's different from having a sense of entitlement

For the Policing Authority, one of the most pressing challenges for the Garda is how it deals with young people, an issue which has been brought into focus by the pandemic.

“Organisations in a number of disadvantaged urban areas spoke of what they believe to be a deterioration in relations between young people in their area and the Garda Síochána during the current lockdown,” the authority said last year.

“Young people were reported as believing that Covid-19 [has] been used by the gardaí as an excuse to conduct more stops, to ‘do policing to them rather than for them’ and the point was made that often the ‘wrong young people’ are being stopped which itself creates more resentment.”

The authority noted figures showing those aged 18-25 received the highest number of Covid fines, at just over half, during the pandemic.

"Young people engage with policing with a completely different perspective than any previous generations. Because that's the way the world is and it's a very promising thing that that's the case," Policing Authority chairman Bob Collins says.

Young people, he says, had a different idea of respect than previous generations. They do not think someone deserves respect just because they have a badge. It has to be earned,” Collins says.

“They’ve higher expectations. They’ve higher awareness of the fundamental rights that we all have. That’s a good thing and it’s different from having a sense of entitlement,” he says.

“I think engagement with young people with a fresh understanding will be a big challenge for the future.”