We need to decide what we want Community Safety to do
Inherent in Community Safety is the notion that problem-solving cannot be delivered by working in isolation
How might contestability for budget and for ownership be managed when the community’s fear of crime requires a public lighting rather than a law enforcement response? And how might this be achieved without weakening independent oversight of the Garda Síochána? Photograph: Getty Images
Since its establishment in January 2016, the Policing Authority has been in the business of overseeing the performance of the Garda Síochána and the service it provides to the public. That service is complex, but it is directed towards a simple outcome. As set out in the Garda Síochána’s recent statement of strategy, the desired outcome is keeping people safe.
There is a general recognition that the role of the police has changed over time as society has evolved. Policing has increasingly become more than law enforcement. It is often about being a port of call for people when they are in crisis or in fear.
The roles that Garda members and Garda staff are called on to fulfil in those moments of crisis can involve dealing with mental health issues, accommodation, addiction, children and families in crisis and the complex interplay of all of these issues within a community. Often the solutions are not within the capacity of the Garda Síochána alone to provide.
In September 2018, the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing (CFP) was published. It set out a number of principles to guide the future of policing in Ireland, including that “policing is not the responsibility of the police alone, but involves other agencies of government, such as health and social services, and other sectors of society”.
The report introduces the concept of Community Safety, and recommended the establishment of a new Policing and Community Safety Oversight Commission. The Minister for Justice and Equality has designated the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate as the foundation of the new body, which is recommended to have a core function to promote interagency working and scrutinise the role of all agencies as they affect policing and community safety.
Community Safety as a concept is an inarguable good –we want ourselves and members of our community to feel safe and be safe. But as a term it is not necessarily simple to define. Inherent in the concept are notions of collaboration and problem-solving that require the various services within the State to recognise that keeping a community safe at a collective or individual level cannot be delivered by working in isolation – nor is it the responsibility of one service.
But it is not new. Many agencies and community groups and the Garda Síochána have been working within a Community Safety context for many years, albeit they may not have put that title on the work they do. This work has happened in some cases in a formalised, structured manner, but also in organic, quiet and informal ways as the various actors in a community come together to solve problems.
The Government has accepted the recommendations of the CFP and preparations for the necessary legislation are under way. It intends to put Community Safety on a statutory footing, and will establish the new body that will oversee Community Safety.
The Policing Authority is preparing now for this future oversight role, and key to that preparation is understanding how oversight can bring value to that Community Safety work.
At its most fundamental there is the question of oversight of what and of whom? The many agencies, departments and services –health, local authorities, child and other social services – already have their own accountability and oversight mechanisms. There is much to tease out in terms of how a new oversight body might oblige this broad church of actors to work together, but also to conceive of, oversee and report on their collective performance in delivering Community Safety.
How might contestability for budget and for ownership be managed when the community’s fear of crime requires a public lighting rather than a law enforcement response? And how might this be achieved without weakening independent oversight of the Garda Síochána?
A crucial question is how will oversight deliver for the community? What value will it bring, and how best could it support the effective work that is already being done? How might it avoid getting in the way of that work?
The Policing Authority is conscious of the well established, strong community development practice and ethos that exists in Ireland. It is aware of the tension that invariably can exist between a participative, bottom up, responsive way of working and the demands of formal structures and processes of accountability that can characterise by necessity the working of official Ireland.
Community Safety oversight is not something to be “done” to the community – it needs to bring value. The nature of the role envisaged for the oversight body also needs to be considered. Is there a tension or conflict when oversight is combined with a funding or facilitative role?
As this new legislation is being prepared, now is the time for these questions to be considered. It is fortunate that we are in some ways second adopters. There are many other jurisdictions that have formalised structures and processes around Community Safety oversight and from which Ireland can learn. It seems that there is, as of yet, no widely accepted model of best practice for Community Safety, no clear structure that might be easily adopted in Ireland, nor is there a settled, comprehensive oversight architecture from which we might take guidance and learnings.
Josephine Feehily is chairperson of the Policing Authority. The Policing Authority will hold a public conversation on Community Policing Oversight – What Should it Mean in an Irish Policing Context? www.policingauthority.ie