Weathering the perfect storm in our police force

Sifting through the latest critical report of the Garda Síochána would leave even the staunchest supporter of the force grappling for good news.

It isn’t that there aren’t positives in it — large numbers of dedicated and overworked gardaí doing their best — it is just the sheer litany, and scale, of problems in terms of investigating crime.

And this is against the background of a force tossed and battered by one controversy after another this year.

There was the penalty points saga, including a highly critical Garda Inspectorate report last March. There was the so-called resignation of Commissioner Martin Callinan over the tapes revelations. There was the GSOC bugging drama and subsequent Cooke Report.

There was the Guerin Report into garda investigations of crime in Cavan/ Monaghan, based on allegations from whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

Recently, there was a second set of penalty point allegations from Sgt McCabe, which are being examined internally and by GSOC. To come, There is the Fennelly commission of investigation into the tape claims and the circumstances of Mr Callinan’s resignation. Also to come, is a commission of investigation into the Guerin report.

In the midst of all this, comes a damning and disturbing 500-page Garda Inspectorate Crime Investigation report. It is a hugely detailed and exhaustive examination, conducted over two years, of how gardaí investigate crimes — or don’t, in many cases.

Publication of the report comes at a crucial time for the gardaí, with the imminent appointment of the next garda commissioner, — interim commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan is on the shortlist to be the next boss.

And this is against the background of the creation of a new oversight framework in the Policing Authority and a restructured Department of Justice.

The systems failures, as described by Chief Inspector Bob Olson, in the report covers everything from patchy levels of recording of crime and investigation of crime, poor supervision of gardaí (often inexperienced) who are investigating crimes, neglectful treatment of victims, chronically inadequate IT systems and excessive administrative burdens on middle-management.

Leading investigator Mark Toland — a 30-year veteran of the London Met — documented, at considerable length, failings in crime investigation at a press conference. These included:

- 999 calls not always being recorded;

- Reported crimes not always recorded or recorded in the wrong category;

- Unsolved crimes showing as detected and not all crimes effectively investigated;

- Identified offenders not always brought to justice;

- 30% of crime classifications of crime incorrect;

- In 83% of sampled cases, where crimes were reclassified, the crimes were moved to a less serious category (for example burglary to criminal damage);

- 26% of sampled crimes were detected according to the inspectorate — significantly lower than garda detection rates (43%);

- Inexperienced gardaí often investigated serious crimes, such as rape, child sexual abuse and robbery;

- There are 700 untrained detectives in the force;

- There are delays in gathering and examining evidence and delays in arrest and lapsed cases;

- Poor follow-up with victims on progress of investigations;

- Problems with investigating domestic violence cases, with only a fraction of cases resulting in an arrest and some members demonstrating “negative attitudes”;

- Systemic failures in taking fingerprints.

The inspectorate said the police service was in “critical need” of modernisation of its crime investigation system and said there were “systematic operational deficiencies”.

It said the veracity of crime recording “must be addressed immediately” and that many of its 200 recommendations were “dependent” on the acquisition of modern technology used by other police forces.

Mr Olson said the Garda Pulse computer system — introduced 15 years ago — was not fit for purpose and said there were no records, crime management and supervisory systems in the force.

He said a new roster system, introduced a few years ago, had exacerbated problems, particularly in detective and national units.

Mr Olson pointed out that several of the key failings — lack of garda supervisors and poor IT systems — were highlighted by them in previous reports, but never acted upon.

He said all the problems they identified were in the context of garda cuts — with numbers dropping from 14,500 to 12,900 in five years — poor or non-existent training, poor transport and IT systems and pay cuts — all affecting garda morale.

He said all these issues, on top of the problems identified in the report, created “a perfect storm” for the force.

The question — yet again — is whether or not the Garda Síochána can weather that storm and who will take the helm.

Reports and warnings

Previous Garda Inspectorate reports and warnings:

- Garda Fleet — Ticking Timebomb (June 2014)

Inspectorate boss Robert Olson said the gardaí were facing a “ticking timebomb” as its ageing car fleet looked set to “crash” to a halt at the same time. The former US police chief said there would be a big bill to pay when this happened, but said that, despite resource problems, gardaí were still doing a great job.

“It’s [the patrol cars] a financial timebomb just ticking away. The guards are doing a great job getting jobs done in spite of some of the resources they don’t have — but the vehicle fleet, they’ve been shuffling them around from urban to rural (which is a smart move) to get more mileage out of them.

“But all it means is they’re all going to crash at the same time and there’s going to be a big bill to pay,” he said.

Mr Olson said he was worried about the lack of resources. “I’m very much concerned. I’ve been a cop all my life and the Garda Síochána doesn’t have the tools they need to do the work they need to do.”

He said this was causing them to spend much more time doing things than forces in the US which has the technology.

“The [police] organisation really, really needs and must have more technology: computer-aided dispatch for the country; they must have a records management system; they need a human resource management system — and all of them need to be tied together.

- Penalty Points — Widespread Breaches (March 2014)

The Garda Inspectorate report on the penalty points system found “consistent and wide- spread breaches” by gardaí of official policies regarding the cancellation of fines to motorists.

It cited a lack of garda oversight of the system, which it said was “fraught” with wasted human resources, a lack of internal controls, antiquated processes, and loss of revenue to the State.

“There’s generally no clear policy guidelines, no internal controls, wide- spread breaches of existing policies, poor management and supervision of the system, duplication of efforts, onerous paper- driven redundant use of personnel resources, better used elsewhere and loss of legitimate revenue to the State.”

The report said no training was provided to district officers operating the system, nor any district audits. It said a rigorous audit was required to restore public confidence, but did note the heavy workload on district officers.

When inspectors examined districts they found there was no supporting documentary evidence for the cancellation of fine notices in half of the cases. It found a wide range in cancellations rates, with one district refusing all petitions to cancel, while another granted all.

- Supervision — Unacceptable Shortages (March 2013)

In its report, Frontline Policing, the inspectorate said it was “unacceptable” that sergeants were unable to supervise gardaí by accompanying them on duty because they were snowed under by bureaucracy.

The watchdog said it had identified “significant gaps in supervision at the frontline”, and this was a particular problem for inexperienced gardaí

Sergeants in charge of regular patrols told the inspectorate that they go out with their units in the field only 10% of the time.

The report called for a raft of changes to reduce the bureaucratic and court-related responsibilities of sergeants.

The document had been with former Justice Minister Alan Shatter a year before it was published.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors general secretary John Redmond said: “The situation, if anything, is worse. The report said there were around 2,150 sergeants. That’s now down to around 1,850.”

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