The Irish Times view on cancellation of 999 calls: confidence undermined

Full extent of practice must be made public if trust is to be maintained

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. For most people, the 999 service is their first and only interaction with the Garda. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Many people calling 999 for emergency help are facing a moment of extreme crisis and, at times, even the decision to make the call itself has taken considerable courage. This is especially so for the victims of domestic violence. They can sometimes endure years of suffering before seeking help. Against that background, the cancellation by garda members of thousands of calls is especially grave.

Late last year the Garda created an internal review into the practice and has been reporting regularly to the Policing Authority on its progress. However, the authority made clear during the summer that its concerns were not being fully addressed. It commissioned UK policing expert Derek Penman to carry out an independent review. This was an understandable decision given the seriousness of the controversy.

Penman’s interim report was published by the authority this week. It was already public knowledge that some 203,000 calls, from the 1.4 million made to the Garda between the beginning of 2019 and October, 2020, had been cancelled. All 999 calls were answered. In most cases calls were handled properly; Garda personnel were dispatched to a scene and the proper records of the crime or incident created. However, that correct process was not followed in other cases. For many of those calls, gardaí were dispatched to aid a victim or check reports of a crime. But once the scene was attended, the call was marked cancelled. That meant no follow-up work was required; no records created, no subsequent checks made on victims. Officially, those complaints and other incidents never happened.

As part of its internal review, the Garda has re-established contact with people whose calls were cancelled. The Penman report said many were surprised to hear from the Garda. They had received a policing service when they rang 999 and had no complaints. However, his report also concluded 114 crimes reported in domestic violence calls were missed due to calls being cancelled. That means they were never recorded and never investigated. These were mostly so-called ‘minor assaults’, though one report of sex assault and one of an historical rape were also missed.


To date only a fraction of calls have been checked. Penman has also been unable to begin listening back to recordings of 999 calls because of concerns about the legality of access to them. Legal advice is being sought on how to proceed. It is crucial those calls are heard as the recordings will reveal the true quality of response offered by Garda members to the public. For most people, the 999 service is their first and only interaction with the Garda. Confidence in it has been undermined. The full extent and complexion of the cancelled calls controversy must be made public. That must happen quickly if trust in such a vital service is to be maintained.