Inquiry into fatal shooting must address issues of garda training

The death of George Nkencho by lethal force will raise questions into garda training on bias in risk assessment, writes Dr Lucy Michael
Inquiry into fatal shooting must address issues of garda training

Placards during a protest for George Nkencho at Blanchardstown Garda Station, Dublin; Mr Nkencho was involved in a fatal shooting with gardaí following an assault in a local shop in Hartstown, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The death of George Nkencho has prompted protests around the country this weekend after gardaí used lethal force in disarming him, following an assault in a local shop. 

While the facts of the case are still to emerge, and an independent investigation begins, there have been questions raised about the extent to which the issues of mental health and ethnicity were factors in his death. 

Mr Nkencho died after the Garda Armed Response Unit shot him multiple times in front of his house in the course of disarming him. 

A video of the confrontation went viral online, causing much speculation. Speculation on the facts of a particular case is unhelpful to the forthcoming investigation. 

There are however key points to be addressed in terms of the context in which this case emerged, the structures which determine public, political and police responses to it and the reforms that might result from it.

The right to life is guaranteed by Article 40 of the Constitution of Ireland, as well as Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Ireland is a signatory. 

The State has an obligation to preserve life in all its actions, including in policing, and the investigation by the Garda Ombudsman —  Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) — is an automatic result of any death involving gardaí. 

Where there is any risk of the application of lethal force by the State, the obligation falls on the State to minimise that risk to all equally, regardless of suspected criminal behaviour.

Gsoc has limited powers to provide answers to the wider questions being asked by the public in response to this case. These include whether the responses available to gardaí are appropriate and whether the policies, procedures and training in place reflect best international practice to preserve life in the course of policing duties. 

Police in other countries have rarely been disciplined for the use of lethal force in the case of mental health issues, because the decision is based on the balance of threat versus force. 

Police are not mental health specialists, and they make a judgement on the perceived safety of officers. 

We do not have in Ireland a joint policing and psychiatric approach to risk assessment — as are available in the UK and other countries.

The questions raised by this case also include whether garda training on bias is sufficient to address the interplay of racial stereotypes, mental health concerns and risk assessment in policing which have been the subject of political inquiries in other countries, such as the Bradley Review in the UK a decade ago. 

Those judgments on threat may be based in biases that perceive some ethnic minority groups, particularly people of African descent, as more aggressive, particularly in the course of mental health problems. 

Policing of Black communities worldwide suffers from this bias problem, as do investigations into lethal force by police. 

Police services rarely acknowledge these biases, nor do those bodies that investigate them. The intersection of race and mental health issues here is key.

Dr Lucy Michael, a sociologist and expert on racism and integration, says we do not have in Ireland a joint policing and psychiatric approach to risk assessment.
Dr Lucy Michael, a sociologist and expert on racism and integration, says we do not have in Ireland a joint policing and psychiatric approach to risk assessment.

The forthcoming Gsoc inquiry into the death might take seriously the risk of bias in favour of lethal force in such cases, but since their scope of investigation is restricted to the particular incident in question, it is unlikely to be able to do so.

Cases of lethal force tend to be reflective of institutional trends and regional attitudes. 

When police officers act, they do so on behalf of the organisation, and in the context of a particular set of policies, procedures and training. If An Garda Síochúna does not have the appropriate anti-bias training and mental health responses to preserve life, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that those are introduced urgently.

Racial bias may not look relevant to those unaffected by it, but to communities who have for years been experiencing discriminatory policing, both in feeling greater surveillance and lack of access to justice when they are victims of crime and harassment, it is all too relevant. 

Many young people have experienced increased surveillance in the last eight months as a result of increased local policing of their use of public space. 

The ongoing protests about the death of George Nkencho are as much about the wider community’s experiences of policing as the questions of access to justice which this particular case raises. 

The focus now must be on building trust in policing amongst all of the young people who have felt the brunt of public order policing in recent months as well as ethnic minority communities, and accountability of An Garda Síochána is part of that. 

Police officers act for the organisation when they use force as they do in the use of all of their powers. An Garda Síochána must be prepared to be open with communities about the steps they are taking to ensure that bias plays no role in the risk assessments they make, not only in extreme cases, but in everyday policing.

Political will to reform An Garda Síochána in terms of human rights protections, following the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing, is crucial right now. Both in terms of mental health and in terms of racial bias, there is work to be done in police responses to those they serve.

Legislative reform is needed too. The United Nations called on Ireland earlier this year to introduce a ban on racial profiling in police, which the state has not yet committed to. This was on the basis of evidence of the impact of discriminatory policing on ethnic minorities and migrants in Ireland. 

There is a need for disaggregated data both on racial profiling and on the experiences of crime by ethnic minorities in Ireland. The government has been slow to move on this too. 

This political will is necessary to reassure all of us that our access to justice is guaranteed, and inequalities are acknowledged and taken seriously. 

The hardest time to do that is when cases involve those who are not likely to win widespread political support, but it is also the time when it is most necessary to do so.

As the investigation into the particular facts of this case proceeds, political leaders will be mindful of the need to reassure the public of the security of access to justice for all, while they are all too aware of the difficulties of speaking about law and order in human rights terms in the midst of an increasingly contested issue.

This will require political courage, and a commitment to govern in an inclusive way, protecting those who are the sharpest end of state powers in order to preserve access to justice for us all.

Dr Lucy Michael is a sociologist and expert on racism and integration.

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