In safe hands: Recognising communities’ ‘right’ to have a proper policing response

A change of mindset among Garda top brass is key if the force is to become a more community-focussed police service, better protecting areas ravaged by drugs and crime, write Security Correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe

People from Drogheda and surrounding areas attended the Stand Together Rally in Drogheda in response to the gangland violence in the town. Picture Ciara Wilkinson
People from Drogheda and surrounding areas attended the Stand Together Rally in Drogheda in response to the gangland violence in the town. Picture Ciara Wilkinson

Johnny Connolly has been around long enough not to give hostage to fortune.

Asked “will or can” the massive restructuring planned for An Garda Síochána and policing actually bring about the necessary changes, he takes a moment, before saying: “I think it can change”.

He was speaking to the Irish Examiner after publishing his latest detailed research, Building Community Resilience, commissioned by a network of four community policing fora spread across Dublin south west, inside and outside the Grand Canal.

It surveyed the experiences of working-class communities, battered by drugs, gangs and disadvantage, and the inadequate response of the State, in terms of policing and youth intervention.

It utilised a crime-mapping system, used previously in the Greentown project by researchers at University of Limerick, to provide a visual representation of “criminal networks”, their scale, associations and hierarchy.

Along with research assistant Jane Mulcahy of University College Cork, Dr Connolly spoke to gardaí and community activists on the ground.

It was his first research report after being a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

Its report, published in September 2018, has been adopted by the Government and an implementation group is the process of endeavouring to make it a reality.

Dr Connolly worked for 10 years as a criminologist within the Health Research Board, during which he produced a major research document, commissioned by the Department of Justice, on the illicit drugs market.

Before that, he did numerous pieces of research on drugs and crime in Dublin’s north inner city.

A number of sources said his input into the CFPI was instrumental in its recommendations in relation to community policing in particular.

Making communities safe

Central to this is the concept of “community safety”, with the prevention of harm and the rights of communities central to this reorientation of policing.

Parallel with this is making the protection of the community not just the responsibility of policing but of a whole range of state services, including mental health as well as social, family, youth and drug services.

In safe hands: Recognising communities’ ‘right’ to have a proper policing response

This would include crisis intervention teams, comprising gardaí and social workers, which, the concept goes, be operational around the clock.

“The Commission on the Future of Policing found that around 80% of law enforcement work is nothing to do with policing and crime — its dealing with vulnerable people, mental health and addiction,” Dr Connolly said.

Common to both this report, and Community Resilience, is a focus on communities, particularly working class communities and the “right” they have to a proper policing response.

“People think of rights in this area to do with people accused of crimes, but communities also have rights. Communities have a right to be safe. Parents have a right to raise their kids in safety. These rights don’t often enter the debate, but communities are entitled to community safety,” he said.

He said state agencies must be obliged to deliver on these rights for communities.

Launching the Community Resilience report, Dublin’s top police officer, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy said: “The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland called us out. It said neither your structures nor your behaviours reflect the view you have of yourselves as a community policing organisation. You know for me personally, that was a slap in the face.”

Regarding the new community-focused police service set out in the commission’s report, the chief said: “If senior [garda] management do not have a change of mindset and are not totally committed to it, it is not going to happen — it’s as simple as that.”

Dr Connolly said the assistant commissioner “gets it” when it comes to local communities and policing.

“The commission report said An Garda Síochána have this idea of themselves as a community policing organisation, but we said the structures are not there, the way it is organised and the way community policing is valued — it is not valued — is not there. Essentially, the view they have of themselves does not reflect reality.”

He said the commission’s view was that the “vast majority” of gardaí in a division should be “community focused”.

He said the organisation “first had to accept this vision” and then determine how it would do it.

He said the divisional policing model — which preceded the appointment of Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, but is now being actively driven by him — was the biggest structural reform of the organisation since its foundation almost 100 years ago.

He said this was the first and essential part of reform and that this would drive the “cultural change” that AC Leahy was flagging.

The appointment of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner appears to dovetail with the focus on the community, as the former PSNI chief has, from the outset, put the protection of people, particularly vulnerable people, at the heart of his policing philosophy.

The Community Resilience report documented the impact of a relatively small number of criminals, many of them just children, have on local communities.

Gardaí at the scene where a man in his 20s was killed after being shot in the head outside a gym in Applewood Close in Swords Dublin. Picture: RollingNews.ie
Gardaí at the scene where a man in his 20s was killed after being shot in the head outside a gym in Applewood Close in Swords Dublin. Picture: RollingNews.ie

The research, similar to the Greentown project, refers to “criminal networks” rather than gangs, to reflect the loose structure involved, though it was combined, particularly in one of the two networks mapped, out with a controlling hierarchy of “key players” and local “lieutenants”.

The networks provide status, power and access to money for many young people, some of them as young as 10, while others are ensnared by debts accumulated through drug use.

These networks inflict terror on families of young people who owe money, or who have drugs seized from them by gardaí.

More insidious and corrosive, is the general fear and silence they impose on communities.

The Community Resilience report called for a multi-agency response to those key leaders of the criminal networks and intensive intervention towards both local lieutenants and street dealers, as well as a rescue plan for those very young children at risk of being groomed into the networks.

“Young people being sucked into the drug trade do need a law enforcement response because of the serious harm being done and the potential of even greater harm being posed. That intervention needs to look at who is doing the grooming and how can we access those children and work with their families.”

On a side issue, Dr Connolly is heavily critical of the State working group set up to examine possible alternatives to the criminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use.

The group recommended keeping possession a criminal offence but recommended a health intervention for a first, and possibly second offence, and the use of an adult caution.

“The working group really underachieved and I’m really disappointed that what it came to was an expansion of the adult caution scheme and diverting people,” he said. “Criminalisation further stigmatises and does not address availability or access.”

He said that after intervening with young people being groomed, communities and young people more generally must be helped.

“Then we need to look at how can we support communities, and build up their strength, and look at the young people, build up their agency and pro-social opportunities for them, so they are not lured through exploitation or intimidation into the trade.”

He added: “We mapped out the scale of these networks and said this was manageable. We are challenging the narrative in the media that this is out of control. We are saying this isn’t out of control. Yes, it is problematic, yes, it is serious, but it is manageable.”

Long haul

Given all these developments — in terms of the focus on communities and community policing, the restructuring of the organisation and the implementation of the Policing Commission — does he think things can or will change?

Thinking about it, he said: “I think it can change. There does seem to be a real interest in a different approach.”

He noted the words of deputy general secretary of the Department of Justice, Oonagh McPhillips, at the launch of the report.

She noted one of the findings, that the numbers involved in the criminal networks was relatively small and that the problem “should be manageable”.

She said the research came on the back of the Policing Commission report, which she described as “revolutionary” in making policing and community safety a “shared responsibility”.

She said the landmark Policing and Community Safety Bill would deliver a co-ordinated multi-agency approach to community safety, and that communities would be at the centre of identifying issues and solutions.

The aim was to instill confidence in communities of state services and “increase the sense of safety” within communities.

Responsibility would be placed across government and statutory agencies. She expected the bill to be brought to Government in the first quarter of 2020, after consultation was carried out — comments made before the election was called, meaning the timeframe will be delayed somewhat.

Dublin’s top police officer, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy, launched the Community Resilience report. Pìcture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Dublin’s top police officer, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy, launched the Community Resilience report. Pìcture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Dr Connolly said that Ms McPhillips was indicating that the response from across government was “overwhelmingly positive.”

He added: “I have to take her word for it and I do. There some seem to be a willingness to engage.”

He accepted there would be “implications for work practices and trade unions” in creating a 24/7 multi-agency service.

“It makes sense. They can see the logic and the evidence for it, but can they make it happen?”

He said that if he was a senior policy maker with the Department of Justice or An Garda Síochána the difficulties police have in accessing local communities should be a “serious issue for the State”.

He said: “There is a serious need to tackle it now, before it does become unmanageable”.

He said one part of this — and it was a need identified also in the Policing Commission report — is to actively recruit from working-class communities.

The Policing Commission said: “A significant weakness in the police service is diversity in socio-economic and geographical background. We visited lower income urban areas and border areas from which no young people apply to join the police. These areas have distinct policing challenges.

“It should be a high priority to recruit people who come from those communities and know them well.”

Dr Connolly said it would be of “huge benefit” to the organisation if they followed this advice.

Parallel with this, he acknowledged that policing on the ground in communities hardest hit by criminal networks, the drugs trade and neglect, and interacting with young people there, requires a certain attitude and skills by the gardaí.

“They will experience rough interactions,” he said, “but they need to treat the young people with respect the first time. They have to be extra professional and role models. They need to take that [rough talk] on the chin and be trained in conflict management.

“If you treat someone with respect, even if they treat you very derogatively or abusively, you break down divisions over time. They will see you in the area, talking to people.”

But he stressed, this is a “long haul” and requires deep commitment from the agencies.

“The gardaí need to build up relations and, over time, the people there might talk to you about other things.

“The organisation is still in a good position: a lot of these communities are looking for more gardaí and visibility — in other countries they don’t want the police around. They want gardaí there.”

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