Plans to replace victims' phones seized during Garda domestic abuse investigations

Garda Commissioner is to seeks funds from the Department of Justice to provide a phone-swap service when a device is taken for evidence in sexual or domestic violence cases
Plans to replace victims' phones seized during Garda domestic abuse investigations

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: The mobile phone issue is an 'impediment' in domestic abuse and sexual assault cases. Picture: Conor Ó Mearáin

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is to ask the Department of Justice for funds to provide a phone-swap service in sexual or domestic violence cases so gardaí can offer victims a replacement phone when taking their device for evidence.

Commissioner Harris previously said there was a “significant and growing” issue that was hampering investigations resulting from an understandable desire and need among victims to hang on to their phones for personal and professional reasons.

He gave details of his proposal at a public meeting of the Policing Authority.

The meeting was held in Monaghan, the first time the event has been located outside Dublin in the authority’s six-and-a-half years in existence.

The meeting also heard:

  • A small number of people who rang 999 about a domestic abuse incident, and who did not receive a proper Garda response, did suffer “some element of harm”;
  • Garda numbers will not increase until the “middle to end” of 2023 because of the major impact caused by Covid restrictions on recruiting and training student gardaí.

In response to questions from authority member Elaine Byrne, Commissioner Harris said the mobile phone issue was an “impediment” in domestic abuse and sexual assault cases.

We need to find a solution to this because the original and best evidence is on that phone and I think the best way for us to proceed is by in effect a replacement phone

He said some other jurisdictions take an “electronic snapshot” of the victim’s phone but he was certain that was not enough for the courts here.

The commissioner said he had been invited by the Department of Justice for proposals to address the “attrition” of prosecutions around serious sexual assault and domestic abuse cases and said he would pursue this proposal with the department.

He said in cases of rape there can be exchange of text messages between the victim and the alleged perpetrator that can be very illustrative of what happened and provide evidence of guilt or innocence.

The ongoing controversy surrounding almost 3,000 999 calls, mostly domestic abuse cases, that were not responded to properly by gardaí, was also discussed at the meeting.

Policing Authority chief executive Helen Hall asked Commissioner Drew Harris about a report into 999 calls that were not properly responed to. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Policing Authority chief executive Helen Hall asked Commissioner Drew Harris about a report into 999 calls that were not properly responed to. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Authority chief executive Helen Hall noted that the Authority-ordered inquiry into the calls, led by former chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland, Derek Penman, was able to continue after legal issues preventing him examining 999 calls had been dealt with.

She asked the commissioner for an update on An Garda Síochána's implementation of Mr Penman’s initial report and asked about media reports that internal reviews suggested callers, who did not receive a proper response, had come to harm.

Constant attention

Deputy Commissioner Anne Marie McMahon said measures had been put in place and seemed to be working but added it required “constant attention”.

She said she had sought to identify if any of the 2,932 callers had come to harm and said this was a “work in progress” as they still had 800-odd calls to go through.

“There are a small number of cases where there is some element of harm,” she said. “We are trying to bottom that out but at this point in time I couldn’t say that anybody came to extreme harm, notwithstanding the fact there may be some element of harm.” 

On Garda recruitment, Commissioner Harris said the force had been “threading water” in the last two years because of the impact of Covid on recruitment and training and said that it would be the “middle to end" of 2023 before the numbers would start increasing.

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