Garda powers to detain vulnerable people in public order situations are “clearly defective”, the head of the Garda Ombudsman has said.
Judge Mary Ellen Ring also told the Oireachtas justice committee that some 20% of the complaints they get every year from the public about garda members were minor “service issues” and should be dealt with internally.
The chair of GSOC said it was conducting an investigation into the practice in the force of detaining people under the Public Order Act 1994 — even though there is no such power of detention.
“Gardaí are often in a very difficult position, dealing with someone under the influence of an intoxicant, or a child, or someone who has mental health difficulties at 3am and none of the appropriate agencies are available,” she told members.
She said Tusla is not available if a child is involved, community health services are not around if the person has mental health difficulties, and the likes of “drunk tanks” are not available.
“Often, gardaí are the only agency available, but public order provisions don’t give them the right to detain people,” she said.
“They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”
Judge Ring said if the child or the mentally distressed person or the intoxicated person was left back out of the street and there was a violent injury or the person fell into a river, many would blame the gardaí.
But she pointed out the current legislation doesn’t allow gardaí to detain such people and that they could be “in trouble” if they did, as “legally, they have no right”.
The chair told the committee the “legislation is clearly defective”.
Judge Ring also said some 20% of the 2,000-odd complaints they receive every year are relatively “minor”, akin to “service issues” such as rudeness or dissatisfaction.
She said it was “unnecessary” for GSOC to be involved in investigating these complaints and that they “should be done by gardaí”.
Judge Ring asked how members of the force, at all ranks, were to gain management experience if they farmed every complaint out to an external organisation.
She cited a case in which a 55-year-old woman alleged a garda was verbally abusive to her when she was trying to comply with conflicting instructions from gardaí directing traffic at an event.
Judge Ring said an investigation was conducted. The garda was found in breach of discipline on the grounds of misconduct and discourtesy and fined €100 for each breach.
The complaint was informed the garda had been formally sanctioned, but never received an apology.
Judge Ring said the whole process took nine months involving multiple people and involved “quite a cost”.
She said: “This is an example of the type of case which GSOC would say should be dealt with by Garda management. This member of the public should have been contacted the evening of the incident, or the following morning, and an apology should have been forthcoming.”
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