There was the “potential for serious harm” to victims due to shortcomings in how 999 calls were handled, which could mean that crimes were not reported or investigated and some offenders were not brought to justice.
The latest report into the handling of such calls found that it was not possible to determine whether serious harm had happened to an individual who had called 999 due to cases where the caller or the potential victim were not identified.
In one case, the call taker did not ask a person for their contact details and ended the call, even though they said they were witnessing what they believed to be a “serious sexual crime”.
The person was not kept on the line and couldn’t be re-contacted without their details, so gardaí were unable to locate the scene of the potential crime or victim.
In this case, the report said that “it is feasible that a serious crime was committed, and the victim of a serious sexual crime never came forward to make a report”.
Today sees the publication of the final report, commissioned and published by the Policing Authority. into An Garda Síochána’s review into the closure, and cancellation, of 999 calls.
The Policing Authority said this report functions as an independent examination of the circumstances, responses and challenges presented by the “invalid and unwarranted closure of computer aided dispatch (CAD) incidents”.
A ‘cancelled’ 999 call is one where an emergency call is taken by a dispatcher, but is cancelled from the gardaí’s 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.
An interim report, compiled by Derek Penman and published by the Policing Authority last year, into the controversy had found that “serious risk or harm” to individuals may have resulted from the cancelled calls.
That report found more than 200,000 such calls were cancelled between January 2019 and October 2020, the period covered by a Garda review of the matter into more than 2,000 Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault calls (DVSA) which appeared to have been cancelled for “invalid” reasons.
In the final report, the Policing Authority said this must be read alongside the interim report and its recommendations.
This second phase was deemed “essential” by the oversight body as they were now allowed to listen to the calls themselves in order to assess the quality and response given to people who had called 999.
It would not have been possible to consider this from an examination of the paper and electronic files alone, the report said.
The team listened to 210 calls. The authority admitted that the sample size is “relatively low” but was chosen to provide a “sufficient basis to make observations around compliance and quality in relation to the calls sampled”.
Of these, 83 calls were identified as belonging to a “serious cohort”, where the incidents reported had the potential to result in serious risk or harm to individuals. It involved 60 calls for Dublin and 23 calls for Cork.
Overall, the report said that call takers are meeting the standards of service the public should expect with most of them “polite, helpful and professional”. But there were inconsistencies and poor service in some areas also, with “substantial shortcomings” identified in some cases.
In some, it was not possible to tell whether the cancelling of the call in the manner that was done resulted in serious harm as not enough information was gathered in that call.
The incidents involved cases of domestic abuse, and cases where a child had rang a third-party line and disclosed both they and their parent were the victim of sexual abuse.
Among the examples cited by the report are:
“Shortcomings in call handling where there was potential for serious harm is illustrated in an incident where the call taker did not ask a caller for contact details and ended the call, even though the caller was at that time witnessing what they believed to be a serious sexual crime in progress.
As the caller was not kept on the line, they could not provide potentially valuable information to the Gardaí attending. Nor could they be re-contacted to provide further information when the Gardaí attending the call were unable to locate the scene of the potential crime or victim.
In this incident, it is feasible that a serious crime was committed, and the victim of a serious sexual crime never came forward to make a report. Although this incident was properly identified during the CAD Review, there was no possibility of identifying a victim and therefore no possibility to determine whether a crime occurred or if there was any injury to a victim.”
“Another example included a call from a confidential third-party reporting service that was relaying real-time information from a child reporting an ongoing serious sexual assault on their parent. The child also disclosed that they were also the victim of sexual abuse by the same perpetrator and provided some information about this person.
The third-party reporting service provided contact details and a location for the child and Gardaí were dispatched immediately. However, it transpired that the address was incorrect and there was no trace of the child, their parent nor any evidence of a crime. As the call from the confidential third-party reporting service had not been kept open and the third-party call taker was not asked to keep the child on the line to maintain dialogue until Gardaí attended, there was no opportunity to re-establish contact or check the information initially provided.
As the Gardaí attending were unable to identify the child or their parent at the address given, the incident was cancelled, and no further investigation was initiated. Notwithstanding that this may have been a bogus call, the seriousness of the allegations and potential vulnerability of the child and parent should have ensured this CAD Incident was not cancelled, but instead passed for urgent investigation.
Although this incident was properly identified during the CAD Review, it was not possible to identify a victim, their parent or possible perpetrator and therefore impossible to determine whether a crime occurred or if there was any injury to the victim(s).”
“In one case, a caller reported being the victim of domestic abuse, but then called back to cancel the Gardaí attending. It is not uncommon for the victims of DVSA to call back on the 999 system to advise that Gardaí are no longer required, but the Garda Síochána DVSA policy is clear that such calls should not be cancelled, and that Gardaí must attend to assess vulnerability.
As this incident was cancelled on the CAD system, Gardaí did not attend, and the caller made a further 999 call four hours later reporting that they had been assaulted. Although Gardaí attended and fully investigated the assault allegation, it was not possible to assess whether an earlier intervention by Gardaí attending the initial call would have prevented the later assault.”
Away from situations deemed as serious, the team also randomly reviewed a further 120 calls. It found in some cases the call taker was impatient, interrupting the caller unnecessarily, failing to ask sufficient follow-on questions or providing poor advice.
There was also evidence of an “inconsistent approach” to children calling 999, in one case where a call taker was abrupt in asking for a child’s name and did not ask for a location before the child ended the call.
The report added: “There are some incidents where the Garda members dispatched to incidents specifically requested that a call be cancelled. This practice was highlighted in the Interim Update (Nov 21) as a means of Garda Members avoiding follow-up activities.”
The oversight body, however, also praised the gardaí for its “detailed preparation” of the CAD review incident files. It also said there was “consistent evidence” that the gardaí sought to provide a service to those failed via a “victim engagement process”.
Based on his findings in the report, Mr Penman recommended that the gardaí conclude its CAD review and “ceases any further retrospective analysis of incidents”.
“This should be agreed by the Policing Authority and the Garda Síochána on the understanding that the financial and opportunity costs of further analysis is unlikely to identify harm or offer meaningful service recovery to potential victims,” he said.
Mr Penman recommended the gardaí focus its resources on improving the current call handling arrangements. Policing Authority chair Bob Collins, meanwhile, said he will continue to bring oversight to this area into the future.
“The 999 emergency call service is a crucial public service that people, often the most vulnerable, rely on in moments of crisis,” he said.
“It is essential that the Garda Síochána addresses the underlying issues identified in this report — issues including supervision, selection processes for specific roles, and performance management — so that the public can continue to have the confidence that it needs to have in the 999 emergency call service and will be assured of receiving the quality of service it deserves from its policing service.”
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is due to address the Policing Authority on these matters later this afternoon.
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