Garda Commissioner 'not prepared to wait' as reforms are met with concerns

Garda Commissioner 'not prepared to wait' as reforms are met with concerns
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris

Drew Harris landed the commissioner's job on the basis that he would reform the organisation.

Successive governments were responding to seemingly endless inquiry and inspection reports about what was wrong with policing in Ireland.

The Commission on the Future of Policing would report just as the new commissioner would take over and the Government had committed itself to implementing its recommendations.

In his first media interviews, last September, the commissioner, in his characteristically straight-talking way, said that improving the policing service to the community and controlling spending were top of his agenda.

On Thursday, he revealed his new operating plan, A Policing Service for the Future - a key part of his reform strategy.

The plan is the culmination of developments begun long before he took over, stemming originally from a mammoth 380-page inspection report carried out by the Garda Inspectorate in 2015.

That report argued for both a reduction in the number of garda divisions and a restructuring in how those divisions operated – away from the old district model, where a local superintendent runs everything in each of the 107 districts in the country to a divisional model with separate (and fewer) superintendents run specific functions, such as crime, community policing, performance, with a new senior civil servant taking over administration, HR and finance.

The Government agreed in 2016 to replace the district model with a functional divisional model.

The Commission on the Future of Policing, reporting last September, called for a different version of the commissioner's plan, but there are many similarities.

It actually called for a “district policing model”, with all gardaí part of a “single district policing team” and that all should be considered "community police".

But where the commission's report tallies with the Garda report is its call to make garda divisions “self-sufficient” and "mini police services" with their own budgets, finance and HR. It also said the number of divisions should be “significantly reduced”.

While the commissioner differs with the commission on aspects of community policing, and favours dedicated Community Policing Teams, his model mirrors the commission's proposals.

The commissioner appears to believe in the new model and fielded all questions from the media on the new plan at a lengthy press conference.

His plan, or what he says it will do, appears to dovetail with his core objective – to improve policing services in local communities, including by taking the administration burden off gardaí so they can do their jobs.

He said an extra 1,800 gardaí will be put into operational duties by 2021, through a net increase of 800 recruits and 1,000 gardaí taken off administrative duties and on to frontline. Observers will watch if that happens.

A number of representative bodies have raised serious concerns about the new model.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious – the new model, on the face of it, with see nine divisional chief superintendent positions go, with estimates that in the region of 30 superintendents will also be “surplus to requirement” by the merging of divisions.

But local bosses also claim that the new divisions, particularly in rural areas, will be huge and that local districts will be robbed of their superintendent.

They also question whether it will improve local policing, saying the four pilots have not been fully evaluated.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, representing frontline supervisors, are also concerned, saying it will “downgrade management structures”.

Most associations criticised the lack of consultation.

Associations representing superintendents and chief superintendents are thought to be seeking industrial relations and legal advice on the plan's implications and whether it breaches existing agreements.

Could this delay the plan and force more talks?

Not from the commissioner's point of view. He said there has been “enough conversation”.

He said the “rubber would start hitting the road” soon and that he wants to break the back of the divisional reductions next year.

“It's a time for action and I'm not prepared to wait,” he said.

In the autumn, he will meet local joint policing committees, concerned at the reduction in superintendents and the loss of divisional headquarters to neighbouring counties.

Next year will also be an election year. A lot of rubber to burn.

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