Society is entering ‘uncharted territory’ as the State’s response to the Covid-19 emergency escalates, senior gardaí tell Security Correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe.
“We are in totally uncharted territory.” That’s how one highly experienced senior garda explained the situation the organisation now finds itself in policing the Covid-19 crisis.
Gardaí have told thethat this crisis is a public health emergency, not what would normally be defined as a policing one.
But gardaí acknowledge that the “preservation of life” is their ultimate priority as police officers.
And given their long-standing vision as a “community” police force, and the whole thrust of policing reform currently being implemented, which includes policing within a wider “community safety” remit, this is their business.
In addition, many of them see the potential, if not the likelihood, of disobedience and even outbreaks of civil unrest the tighter the ‘lockdown’ gets and the longer it drags on.
“This is the lull before the storm,” said one senior officer, “and there will be a storm.”
There have already been multiple reports on social media of youths launching coughing “attacks” on people.
Gardaí have confirmed a small number of incidents where young males have objected to being requested to disperse and have allegedly coughed at officers.
Reports that the organisation has ordered 16,000 “spit hoods” to protect officers from detainees coughing or spitting at them indicates the issues the force is having to handle.
The scale of the job facing gardaí in managing traffic, let alone dispersing crowds, was graphically highlighted last weekend in parks, walkways, and beaches across the country.
All the gardaí spoken to said they need clarity — on what the law states and how they are to enforce it.
And despite what the public might have been led to believe by politicians, gardaí still do not have the powers outlined in the emergency legislation. The bill was passed a week ago, and enacted by the President last Friday, but the health minister has yet to sign the regulations which the legislation provides for, in orher to give gardaí the new powers.
“Our approach is we are asking people to disperse, but it’s only a request — all we can do is ask,” said one local commander describing the current situation.
“In fairness, 98% of people understand and will comply, it’s the 2% where the issue might be.”
Another commander said that “co-operation rather than coercion” is the Garda approach on this.
A third senior officer said: “When it comes to criminality and criminal gangs, our approach is clear — ‘the gloves are off’ — but the foundation of our policing is community policing, and that is how we will approach this.”
A fourth officer said: “We are in social-distancing mode now and there is general compliance. We’ve had some young people being abusive when challenged. People are generally very good, but there are groups who don’t get it.”
A fifth commander, in a mainly rural division, said: “Our approach is we are asking people to keep their social distance and we’ve had no real issues. We are delivering medicines to the elderly and the vulnerable, anyone who needs help can call us, we’ll sort it out and bring it to their door.”
This approach — directed from the very top of the force — has been backed up by a public-relations campaign featuring regular images of the day-to-day community and voluntary work local gardaí are doing.
But all the gardaí spoken to are concerned about certain sections of society — groups of teenage boys in particular, but also some communities — who they feel are not abiding by the directions from the Government.
And it is on this that gardaí feel they are operating in a grey area.
“Despite what the Government said about gardaí having major new powers and that they expect us to intervene — those powers are not yet law,” said one officer.
A second commander said: “The legislation was introduced a week ago and we are still waiting on regulations by the minister.”
Another local officer said: “We are still just asking people to do things, trying to persuade them. We have no powers to do otherwise.”
However, various officers do point out they have the Public Order Act, under which gardaí can direct people to desist from certain activity if there is a fear for the “safety of persons”.
Though mainly designed for dealing with antisocial, drunken, or threatening behaviour, officers said it is the only actual legislation they currently have to try and break up crowds.
“It does state ‘public safety’ as a ground,” said one officer, “so you could say public health comes into that — it might stretch the legislation, it’s not completely black and white.”
If someone refuses to obey the direction and verbally abuses gardaí, or coughs at them, they could then be arrested under this Act or even the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Persons Act, which appears to cover spitting or coughing in such a situation.
But all the gardaí spoken to want clarity on the new laws.
They were all unclear as to what stage the signing of the regulations was at and when the usual commissioner’s explanatory note or directive would be issued.
The explanatory note, standard with many new laws, should outline what the new laws mean and, moreover, the commissioner’s policy on it and how he wants them enforced. As it stands, local commanders only received a soft copy of the bill on Wednesday.
The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 outlines a series of major powers — after the health minister issues the regulations: Restricting people’s movements; requiring people to stay at home; prohibition of events; temporary closures of premises (such as pubs); and “any other measures” the minister considers necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Where gardaí suspect these regulations are being contravened, they can direct people to desist and can, if necessary, make arrests. Prosecution could result in a maximum sentence of six months and/or a fine.
In addition, “authorised officers”, including a doctor, can require gardaí to detain a person, by force if necessary, if the person is suspected of being infected but is breaching quarantine. A person prosecuted under this could face up to three months in jail.
The top chiefs in the force, including deputy commissioner John Twomey, have said the laws would be enforced only where necessary and proportionate and that the overriding approach of gardaí is to seek the voluntary co-operation of people.
Some senior officers are unclear regarding the operation of the power of detention, including where the people are supposed to be detained, who will be charged with guarding them, and what happens if they attempt to leave.
A number of Garda sources are concerned that the regulations may not be brought in before the weekend, given they are preparing to ramp up their patrols and visibility in order to prevent repeats of incidents last weekend.
“As it stands, I have road traffic legislation, and maybe the Public Order Act,” said one senior garda.
“We are giving this weekend a lot of attention,” said another officer. “We don’t want a repeat of last weekend.”
The officer added: “You have situations of youths congregating — they are cooped up in houses — and we are concerned about them absorbing messages on social distancing. And bear in mind, the weather is getting better and the days longer. The last thing we want to be doing is harassing people.”
And when the regulations are brought in?
“Listen, you don’t want to be prosecuting people for non-compliance.”
Another officer said: “We don’t want situations where we are dragging 20 young fellas off a green and arresting them.”
But both officers said they need to know the laws are there if a garda on the ground feels that enforcement is warranted.
Another grey area is what gardaí will do if they come across a lot of people in the likes of a park, a square, or a beach, but they are in two or threes or on their own and are spread out.
Officers emphasised that it will still be down to the gardaí on the ground.
“Garda discretion is the way we operate, it’s one of the strengths and weaknesses,” said a commander.
Another commander is particularly concerned if the restrictions deepen and last for months.
“The Government has stopped short of saying this is a lockdown,” the officer said. “This is effectively a lockdown, by a softer tone — they don’t want to say ‘lockdown’ yet.
“But this is going to create social unrest, the longer it goes on and harder it gets. People are going to get pissed off. That’s why we need the powers.”
One senior officer said: “We are in totally uncharted territory, particularly when this sinks into people and we go into enforcement mode. This is the lull before the storm, and there is going to be a storm.”