Elevating the debate over apportioning blame

Elevate: Raise or lift (something) to a higher position.

Throughout it all over the last five years, frontline gardaí have had to get up every day, dust themselves down, and face the public.

As the controversies and scandals buffeted the organisation, they patrolled the streets, responded to danger, witnessed violence and trauma and, in some cases, risked life and limb.

They did so during a time when their organisation was undergoing open-heart surgery.

They watched as their numbers were filleted; their ability to reassure communities and to respond to calls diluted.

They operated without much training and with minimal supervision. Those on regular beat duty complained they had no sergeants to supervise them, let alone accompany them.

The Garda Representative Association argued their case, highlighted their plight, and criticised Garda bosses for not telling it as it was with the Government.

The GRA could see how these working conditions and how the constant blows to the reputation of the organisation were impacting on the morale of members.

Cut to the latest scandal to hit the organisation — the 1.5m fake breath tests over a seven-year period — and the GRA’s response on Thursday and its impact on members.

The internal Garda report, conducted by assistant commissioner Michael O’Sullivan, said there was a range of factors behind the 1.5m phantom breath tests: “Inflating” of records by members, flawed and complicated recording systems, lack of supervision; and pressure (intentional or inadvertent) from management.

But Mr O’Sullivan said the “inescapable conclusion” was that “much” of the 1.5m fake breath tests was due to “inflation” by members.

He said he had identified between 106,000 and 318,500 breath tests that were inflated — representing between 7% and 22% of all 1.46m fake breath tests.

The report said more than 2,000 specific checkpoint incidents had been identified, involving almost 70,000 inflated breath tests.

The Taoiseach raised the issue of disciplinary action against individuals responsible, while Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan reportedly said those responsible should be punished for bringing the force into disrepute.

The O’Sullivan report was sent to regional assistant commissioners for investigation.

It will be passed down to chief superintendents as they are the only officers who can initiate disciplinary action against members.

The GRA did not comment for more than a week after the O’Sullivan report was published on September 6.

Its decision-making body, the Central Executive Committee, met this week and on Thursday issued a statement blaming Garda management “entirely” for the problem.

An interview by GRA spokesman John O’Keeffe with RTÉ’s crime correspondent Paul Reynolds (see Q&A) went a lot further.

He insisted from the start that GRA members “did not falsify” breath tests and repeatedly claimed they had been “put under pressure” from middle and senior management “to do so”.

He pointed out that there was competition among divisions and that members were told “to get these figures up”.

The O’Sullivan report quoted the GRA and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, both of which pointed this out. The latter body said there was a requirement from some Garda managers “to show increases in detections” month-on-month and year-on-year.

The AGSI said managers used increased enforcement levels at a time of reducing resources to “improve promotion profile”.

The Association of Garda Chief Superintendents rejected suggestions that they put pressure on members but did say that there was “comparison and scrutiny” of divisional records at regional meetings.

The O’Sullivan report said that by failing to review the capacity to carry out checkpoints, management was “intentionally or inadvertently applying pressure” and that this was a “contributory factor” to the discrepancies.

So some support for the claims of pressure.

Asked did gardaí falsify the figures or not, Mr O’Keeffe said: “They falsified them under pressure from gardaí — the problem was middle and senior management put pressure on the membership of the GRA to have these high elevated figures.”

When pressed for clarity on whether they falsified or not, he said: “They did not falsify the figures, that means the blame singularly goes on them.” He added: “The defence is one of duress: They were under duress from middle and senior management to alter these figures.”

He continued to insist throughout the rest of the interview that GRA members did not falsify.

“GRA members did not falsify figures, GRA members were told to elevate figures by middle and senior management and those figures were elevated thus.”

He refused to accept that this elevation or alteration was the same as falsifying figures and insisted the falsification “began” with the pressure being put on members.

Apart from the contradiction at one point, the refusal to equate elevation with falsifying (or whatever way you describe making figures up), is unlikely to wash with people. Furthermore, it gives a reason for people to believe that gardaí are yet again reverting to default “denial” mode — a trait that has already caused the organisation much damage.

“This isn’t defending members,” said one garda, “this adds pressure to members”.

Mr O’Keeffe’s statement that admitting falsification meant “the blame singularly goes on them” may explain why he persisted with the line that members did not falsify tests.

But he did not accept that Garda members bore any responsibility whatsoever, suggesting they were essentially coerced into it.

Another statement from Mr O’Keeffe may also partially explain his intentions.

He said: “The pressure was on them and, as a result, any action that is taken against a GRA member, the GRA will firmly stand behind each individual.”

This is a clear shot across the bows of management — and the Government — that any attempt to scapegoat frontline gardaí through disciplinary action will be resisted.

This appears to be a message to the GRA membership. But this is lost on the wider public — and the story has more to run.

The independent investigation commissioned by the Policing Authority is due in the first two weeks of October.

The review by auditors Crowe Howarth is understood to have involved consultations with gardaí in stations at all ranks, including the frontline.

Some Garda sources have expressed satisfaction with how those consultations went and have claimed that Garda management will fare worse in the Crowe report.

Does the GRA know something we don’t?

Presumably, given its media statements on Thursday, it has made an emphatic case to Crowe.

It remains to be seen if Crowe has sided with the GRA argument or not.

Its report is more keenly anticipated than ever.

’The falsification came from middle and senior management’

Garda Representative Association press officer John O’Keeffe interview with RTÉ crime correspondent Paul Reynolds.

JOK: “What we’re saying is the 1.4m falsified breath tests, the blame lies at the organisation. It is an institutional problem.

It is not a specific Garda problem. Gardaí did not go out and falsify breath tests. They were put under pressure from both middle and senior management to do so. We know there was competition amongst the divisions, both in Dublin and around the country, to raise these figures. That was then passed down, from the apex of the organisation to the ordinary guard, be they male or female.

They were told they had to get these figures up, but yet there was no bonus clearly in it for them, obviously there is no financial bonus for a garda and there’s no promotional bonus. The only reason that can be concluded is that they were pressurised to do it and pressurised they were.”

PR: Did they falsify them or not?

JOK: “They falsified them under pressure from gardaí, the problem was middle and senior management put pressure on the membership of the GRA to have these high elevated figures. They were told that if they didn’t have them, at least it was implied to many of them, that, if they didn’t have these figures, there could be consequences. So, the rot starts at the top, it does not start at the bottom and if you want public affirmation of this every time we look at these public surveys, they’re always quite good, they are 70, 80, 90% satisfaction rate with An Garda Síochána, the GRA, the ordinary female guard, the male guard on the street. Where the dissatisfaction lies is with the middle and senior management and these are the people putting the unnecessary pressure on the ordinary garda.”

PR: But, on the one hand, you said they did not falsify it and then, on the other hand, you said they did falsify it under pressure. So, which is it?

JOK: “What I say was the falsification did not come from the ordinary GRA member: The falsification came from the top and the middle. They were put under pressure to raise these figures and told they had to raise these figures.”

PR: So they did falsify the figures?

JOK: “They did not falsify the figures — that means the blame singularly goes on them. There is no blame on the ordinary guard, male or female, on the street. The blame is on the people who insisted that these figures be elevated — it’s as simple as that. The defence is one of duress: They were under duress from the middle and senior management to alter these figures.”

PR: But they did falsify and did alter these figures?

JOK: “They did not falsify these figures. The falsification came from the pressure and the pressure came from middle and senior management.”

PR: But they were the ones who falsified it?

JOK: “They knew if they didn’t go back with elevated figures, or didn’t change them on behalf of middle and senior management, that there would be repercussions; they were told there would be repercussions. The ordinary guards on the street were told that if you do not give us the figures we want, there will be repercussions for you. The pressure was on them and as a result any action that is taken against a GRA member, the GRA will firmly stand behind each individual to which that accusation is made, because we know the reasons these figures were elevated was because of the 18%, not the 82% of An Garda Síochána.”

PR: Let’s just take it step by step: did they falsify the figures. Forget about the pressure and the duress for the moment. Did they falsify figures: yes or no?

JOK: “GRA members did not falsify figures.”

PR: But you said they did falsify figures, but did so because they were under pressure?

JOK: “GRA members did not falsify figures. GRA members were told to elevate figures by middle and senior management and those figures were elevated thus.”

PR: That’s falsification?

JOK: “They did not falsify; the falsification occurred in middle and senior management, not at the lower ranks.”

PR: So explain that to me, they gathered all these false figures and put them in the system, but you’re saying they didn’t falsify them, although they gathered them, they gave the numbers in?

JOK: “GRA members did not falsify that data statistics, they did not falsify any of those. The falsification came from middle and senior management, who put them under pressure to elevate those figures, that’s where the falsification came.”

PR: But how did that happen? The falsification began from the false figures on the checkpoints, which the gardaí were on?

JOK: “The falsification did not begin there, it began with the pressure from middle and senior management to elevate the figures, that’s where this process began. It didn’t begin in the street, it didn’t begin during checkpoints, it began when these people were told if they did not elevate these figures, there could be issues.”

PR: So they elevated the figures and therefore falsified them?

JOK: “Again, I would say the falsification came not from GRA membership, but from middle and senior management.”

PR: They falsified them? It’s like saying black is not black, black is white? They falsified the figures, OK you are saying they falsified them under duress, the reality is they did falsify them?

JOK: “GRA membership were put under enormous pressure by Garda management to elevate breathalyser statistics. This was done in weekly meetings, bi-weekly meetings, from chief superintendent, assistant commissioner level all the way down to inspector and sergeant to the ordinary garda on the street. They were left in no doubt that if they did not elevate these figures that there could be implications for them and their work.”

PR: So, they elevated them and therefore they falsified them?

JOK: “They did not falsify this data. They were ordered to elevate these figures, implicit in this threat that if they did not there would be implications for their working life.”

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