Cancelled 999 calls: Officers couldn't make contact with domestic abuse callers

Cancelled 999 calls: Officers couldn't make contact with domestic abuse callers

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris told the authority that there is “no way of ruling out” that physical harm may have been inflicted on callers who were never followed up on. File photo: Brian Lawless/PA

The Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has acknowledged that gardaí were unable to make contact with a number of people who called 999 alleging domestic abuse, and whose calls were cancelled.

Mr Harris, appearing before the Policing Authority to discuss an independent report into the cancellation of more than 3,000 domestic violence or sexual assault calls, said “we failed to provide a service”.

He said:

There is a small group in respect of domestic abuse where having made contact with us we have no means of knowing what happened to them. They are beyond our reach.

Mr Harris said that in instances where addresses or details were noted incorrectly that “further work should have happened around trying to find out where the call had come from”.

“I recognise that is a very serious failing,” Mr Harris said. “Someone calling may have been acting under coercion. It is important to call again.” 

A ‘cancelled’ 999 call is one where an emergency call is taken by a dispatcher, but is cancelled from the gardaí’s computer aided dispatch (CAD) system meaning that no PULSE record is created, and no follow-up takes place, a particularly stark omission in instances of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Mr Harris told the authority that there is “no way of ruling out” that physical harm may have been inflicted on callers who were never followed up on.

“There is no way of ruling that out on the night, there is no way of ruling it out subsequently. It is an ongoing concern,” he said.

Mr Harris said he “welcomes” the independent review by Derek Penman, the former chief inspector of the Scottish constabulary. That review concluded that “serious risk or harm” may have befallen people whose calls had been cancelled, something the Garda Commissioner accepted.

“That was our immediate concern,” he said of the Garda reaction to the uncovering of 200,000 cancelled 999 calls late in 2020.

He reiterated an apology he had given to those for whom the Garda service had come up short which he had made before the authority in June, but said he was “pleased” that the Penman review had concluded that “we responded correctly” to the issue being uncovered.

In terms of the fact neither Mr Penman nor the Policing Authority have to date been able to listen to or otherwise access any of the cancelled calls under consideration due to “legal issues”, Mr Harris said that was attributable to a “data protection issue which we want to be sure we’ve resolved”.

The report had suggested that call-recording services should be put in place for regional and local Garda Stations, something he said could only happen over the medium-to-long-term, and to which there may be “a legal impediment”.

“Being a call taker on a 999 system is not an easy task, and sometimes it is a very difficult task,” he said.

Asked if he thought that the removal of a need to follow up incidents might be behind why so many calls had been cancelled, Mr Harris said “it’s not clear what the motivation was”.

“It may have been a reckless act. It is certainly well outside our procedures,” he said, adding that the cancelled calls represent “a huge reputational risk” for An Garda Siochana.

He said that something to take from the 999 calls probe is “how did we go so far off track, and how do we resolve it”.

“Unwarranted shortcuts were being taken, and I recognise the process of checking on cancelled calls was not being carried out,” he said. “Governance controls are really at the heart of this.”

- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

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