John O’Brien: Does the Garda have the capacity to meet its current challenges?
Public discourse on crime and policing should be led and informed by gardaí themselves
The State funeral this week of Garda Anthony (Tony) Golden, Blackrock, Co Louth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Policing by its nature takes place on the fault lines of society. It is adversarial in character, and paradoxically it can be incredibly satisfying to its practitioners.
It is normal to encounter crisis and challenges. Gardaí walk in harm’s way on a daily basis as part of their service to the community.
Eighty-eight members of the Garda Síochána have given their lives in the services of this State. The sacrifice of Garda Tony Golden is the latest honourable name to be added to this list. At this time, one has to be respectful and sensitive to the enduring raw grief associated with this tragedy. One is also conscious of the incredible cross-community support for his wife and family and for the Garda Síochána generally.
Honours were rendered with respect and sensitivity on the calm shores of Dundalk Bay for his State funeral.
Now is not the time for a public examination of the circumstances of this particular tragedy. But it is opportune to examine the strategic issues affecting the impact of the policing service.
The Garda Síochána is in many respects a virtual organisation. It does not exist to make a monetary profit and is in effect a State monopoly. Nevertheless many of the iron rules of economics apply to it.
It exists to provide a policing service, a security service and in functional terms to enforce the laws of the land. It is a disparate organisation, with nearly 600 stations and other facilities countrywide.
The operational efficiency of the service has been adversely affected by austerity cutbacks in terms of numbers and budget. The number of full-time sworn officers has fallen to 12,799 from 14,835 in 2009.
This trend is likely to continue because the number leaving each year exceeds the capacity the training facilities at Templemore. Another issue is that pay for the latest intake of gardaí is less than that enjoyed by serving gardaí. This inevitably will lead to internal conflict in the future.
The Commissioner is in effect the chief executive of the organisation, but it is less easy to define who the real owners are.
In philosophical terms one would always say the people. However, legally, the Department of Justice and the funding Department of Finance are key “owners” - and of course Government is the direct owner in absolute terms.
The common question for all of them is, does the service have the capacity to meet its current challenges?
In my view it has the will, but empirically it does not have the organisational capacity to meet current and future demands.
It has to be remembered that it is required to provide a service to meet the challenges in following sectors - Rural, Urban, Border, Organised Crime, State Security and Internationally. Each of these areas requires specific responses and expertise.
Delivery of a visible policing presence is an absolute requirement at community level. Naturally sophisticated technology and systems and procedures must exist within the Garda infrastructure to support and shape the policing effort.
Service delivery norms should find their expression in annual policing plans in the first instance and directly in policing activity in the community.
Having reviewed a number of these documents from different countries, I can safely say that some are aspirational and owe more to public relations than to service delivery.
The best policing plans lay out an overall framework of budget allocation and service delivery, which are measurable and attainable.
The published Garda policing plans are excellent as broad statements of strategy, but they are not plans in the defined sense of the word.
There is little or no mention of budget, and while activities are mentioned in broad-brush strokes there is little detail provided.
In ordinary terms a citizen would be challenged to describe what these plans mean to them at community level. As a citizen I want to see a friendly garda at the end of my street or road on a regular basis. Policing, like politics, is very local.
A rostering system was introduced for frontline policing which was intended to provide numbers at time of greatest need. There are strong indications that this is not being achieved and while gardaí work longer duty tours, they are also absent for a much greater time from the front line.
The recent public meeting in Tipperary clearly outlined massive concern regarding rural crime. It is clear that rural crime is a major issue and that the fear of crime is tangible.
It is desirable that the public discourse on crime and policing should be led and informed by gardaí themselves. Essentially we should know what is the model of policing favoured and how is this model adopted and modified to meet the particular contexts.
It is quite legitimate to pose the question to the Garda Síochána in respect of what policing model or models they favour. In particular, what is their policing model approach for Border Policing and Rural Policing, or do they consider the current approach to be effective?
Policing conducted in the absence of a policing model is conducted on a best endeavours approach - and this method is rarely sustainable.
Contextually, policing is only one part of the criminal justice system and there are very strong influencers elsewhere. The courts and the government bear significant responsibility as well.
I have visited the United Kingdom, European and United States police forces in recent years and the police services there are under very significant economic pressures as well.
The Garda Síochána is one of the very few police organisations that have a national responsibility for normal policing as well as state security.
Consequentially, this structure places even greater pressure on the service. Self-evidently, success is dependent on numbers, a budget, flexible planning and able leadership.
Clearly there is much to debate and consider, there are no easy wins in dealing with the challenges ahead - but the status quo will not be suffice.
John O’Brien is a retired Detective Chief Superintendent who was formerly a divisional officer in charge of the Laois/Offaly and Louth/Meath Garda divisions, and latterly he was the national head of Interpol and Europol.