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Protecting communities and changing Garda culture

Conversations with local family resource centers gave the leaders of the Policing Authority an insight into how a visible Garda presence could look.

“They were saying if you had a garda here [in the centre] it would be safer for people,” said authority chief executive Helen Hall.

“If you have a regular, two-hour slot at the family resource centre, where a guard comes in, it could make it easier for someone to give information or seek help because it’s a routine thing. You are not seen walking into the Garda station.”

Authority chair Bob Collins says the Garda senior leadership “certainly understand” the need to increase its presence in communities.

Garda stations are an important indicator of their presence [but] they’re not the only indicator — they could be located in very different places

Mr Hall said gardaí need to be located in places that are more accessible. He said that with the waning of public services in rural areas, a building could be used as a post office one day, a Garda station the next day and a social protection office the day after that.

Venues such as shopping centers could also be used, he said.

Policing Authority chairman Bob Collins said senior Garda leadership understand the need to increase its community presence.

“The key question is how can a visible Garda presence be provided,” Mr Collins said. “What are the new ways of being present to people in the community?”

Both the chair and the chief executive spoke to the Irish Examiner to coincide with the launch of their Strategy Statement 2022-2024, which places community policing as the first of five strategic themes for the next three years.

Mr Collins agrees that every report into communities and policing always says people want to see more gardaí on the ground, more interaction with locals, and better responses to local needs.

That was made clear in the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, published in September 2018, just before the appointment of Drew Harris as Garda commissioner.

Mr Collins said that, in their detailed consultation with community groups during pandemic restrictions, they published 16 reports.

“They were, in some respects, case studies of the way in which the work of An Garda Síochána was appreciated in the community and they were, in large measure, very positive,” he said.

Liberating communities

However, he added that in some communities there was a mixed response: “There is an issue, particularly for communities where antisocial behavior or street-level drug dealing is a plague on those communities, where the lives of people are blighted by the fact that this takes place, and with young children and young people exposed to the risk of being lured into that world and then intimidated to stay within it.”

He said this reality isn’t immediately addressed by “the very significant successes” that An Garda Síochána have in relation to organized crime and major drug seizures, adding that the crime does not evaporate.

“People would like to see more gardaí in their areas, no doubt,” he said.

Policing Authority chief executive Helen Hall: 'If you have a regular, two-hour slot at the family resource centre, where a guard comes in, it could make it easier for someone to give information or seek help.'
Policing Authority chief executive Helen Hall: ‘If you have a regular, two-hour slot at the family resource centre, where a guard comes in, it could make it easier for someone to give information or seek help.’

Ms Hall added: “On the one hand people see that the guards are having significant successes at a higher level, but actually they say, ‘My life around here hasn’t changed, I still see the same dealers on the corner.’ There is certainly a frustration.”

Mr Collins said people do acknowledge that if a street dealer is removed they are replaced in short order and if there is a local seizure, stocks are replenished pretty promptly.

“It is undoubtedly a challenge for the entire society,” he said.

How do you get to the point where you can liberate communities from the grip, the intimidatory grip, these drug gangs can have

He said gardaí engage in other types of policing that benefit communities which is not visible.

“A huge amount of work of An Garda Síochána is invisible — child exploitation, cybercrime, and fraud — and these guards are in buildings, looking at screens, pursuing whatever flows from that and I think there is a challenge to explain that to the public . That is no less a contributor to keeping the community safe than some of the visible policing.”

newbill

Community policing is an issue that is going to be even more in the spotlight in the future as the center piece legislation in the State’s reform of policing and of An Garda Síochána works its way through the Oireachtas.

The massive Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill will, for the first time, place “community safety” and its protection as a statutory duty on An Garda Síochána and, more radically, on State agencies including the health service.

The draft bill (or General Scheme) has been published, some 392 pages of it, and the full bill is awaited.

community safety

As part of embedding what community safety means — and who is responsible for what — three pilots have been taking place in Dublin’s north inner city, Waterford, and Longford.

Mr Collins feels community safety — and the new structures to implement it — could be “potentially transformative but said it will take a “very significant degree of transforming” in a range of organisations.

He feared there was still a risk that the “lion’s share” of community safety “will still land at the door” of gardaí, rather than other agencies.

The final bill will be critical in ‘giving clues as to what is realistic’ in terms of community safety and what is capable of being delivered

Under their strategy, the Policing Authority will be “intensifying” their engagement with communities in addition to commissioning research on communities and policing and drug policing. They also plan to “go back talking to guards as well” and being on the ground with them.

Along with changing community policing, reforming Garda culture has been another task occupying the Policing Authority.

culture shift

On the back of multiple crises and tribunals, and mountains of reports — not least the blueprint for reform laid out in the Commission on the Future of Policing — Mr Collins believes things are changing for the better.

Anyone who expects an overnight change in the culture of any organization — that’s unachievable

“The Garda organization is 100 years old this year and the inherent of a pre-existing culture. But is it changing? I think there has been a noticeable shift,” he said.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who was central to the establishment of the anti-corruption unit.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who was central to the establishment of the anti-corruption unit.

He points to the establishment of the anti-corruption unit as a “very significant change” in the culture — one that was driven by Commissioner Harris.

“It’s a challenge to the culture of the organisation, forcing people to accept the fact that An Garda Síochána is not so qualitatively different from any other police service in the world. That was a significant statement.”

He said the emphasis on standards of behavior that are to be expected from a serving police officer, or anybody who works with An Garda Síochána, was a shift in culture.

Mr Collins said the organization has also drawn up a diversity strategy and said the aims of this was reflected in the recent Irish Examinerwhich, as reported in the Garda recruitment campaign, saw a shift in the diversity of applicants.

He said that the change in the organization in relation to domestic violence has been “radical”, not least in the establishment in each division of a protective services unit tasked with investigating domestic abuse along with sexual crimes, offenses against children, and human trafficking.

service mentality

Ms Hall said this change was part of a wider reform, towards a “service mentality”, which she said was “quite significant”.

She also pointed to the Garda internal Cultural Audit — published in May 2018 — which was encouraged, or required, by the Policing Authority and provided a rare insight into the views and feelings of Gardaí.

The 2018 internal audit of the culture within An Garda Síochána provided a rare insight into the views of gardaí.
The 2018 internal audit of the culture within An Garda Síochána provided a rare insight into the views of gardaí.

Mr Collins said the Garda organization had agreed to conduct another audit.

“Many people who participated the last time felt it wouldn’t have any impact,” he said, “but there is no question to my mind it had a very significant way the organization and the leadership looked at itself. It will be good to see if that opinion has shifted in any way.”

One issue raised in the audit was the feeling that only those with connections got promoted

Mr Collins said that, in addition to every competition to rank of superintendent, chief superintendent and assistant commissioner being run independently, in more recent years competitions for the garda rank have also run externally.

Competitions for the ranks of sergeant and inspector have now been moved out to the Public Appointments Service.

“That is really, really significant,” said Mr Collins.

He said that while the authority will lose responsibility under the new bill for the competitions it had — as they will go back under the remit of the commissioner — he said he was reassured by the general scheme that all competitions would be run externally, with the authority having an oversight role.

There are other structural changes under the draft bill and the authority appears to be more content now than it had been about them.

It still awaits the final bill, when it will be renamed the Policing & Community Safety Authority.

Mr Collins thinks it will be the end of 2023 “before anything takes serious effect”.

Plenty, then, to be going on with in the meantime.

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