Cultural malaise within the gardaí can be tackled, writes Michael Clifford, even though it is getting harder and harder to believe any information the force provides.
CAN we trust our police force to tell us the truth about policing?
It’s a frightening question but one that must be addressed, irrespective of whether Nóirín O’Sullivan continues as Garda commissioner.
The latest scandal to hit the gardaí sees a confluence of two of the greatest endemic problems. The wrongful conviction of 14,000 motorists who had not received notice of offences highlights gross incompetence. The false accounting for nearly 1m roadside breath sides over four years points to a collapse of integrity or ethics in the force.
Last Saturday, this newspaper reported that there may also be a major issue in the accounting of roadside checkpoints. According to one retired sergeant, the checkpoints are accounted for based on targets rather than completions.
If this ultimately proves to be the case, then up to half of all the checkpoints accounted for could, in fact, be falsely recorded.
What is even more worrying is the response the sergeant got when he brought these concerns to the attention of senior management, prior to his retirement.
In a letter to the Police Authority last week, he wrote: “The reply I got dismissed my concerns and criticised me… Garda management had issued instructions to record all checkpoints on Pulse even if not performed and then invalidate the Pulse incident record of unperformed checkpoints.”
These problems with recording activity on breath tests and checkpoints are not isolated. In November 2014, a major report by the Garda Inspectorate found that a large volume of crimes recorded on Pulse were wrongly downgraded.
The report said there was substantial evidence that serious crimes such as assault, burglary, robbery and theft were being “under recorded” by as much as 30%.
Alarmingly, the report also said 70% of crimes that were reclassified on the Pulse system were “incorrectly” downgraded with “no recorded rationale”.
As a result of that report, the CSO felt obliged to suspend the publication of crime statistics because the agency felt it could not believe the information being given it by the gardaí.
In July 2015, the CSO resumed publication, only after noting that a review it carried out suggested that official Garda crime figures were under-recorded by up to 38%.
This adjusting of the official record to reflect better on the work of the force was also present in the complaints made by Sgt Maurice McCabe about garda malpractice.
In 2010, McCabe handed over a volume of 1,150 Pulse records from the Cavan /Monaghan division which he said were examples of poor and shoddy work and malpractice.
Around 620 of these records were returned to Cavan/Monaghan. Subsequently most of them were adjusted or updated to make the official record look as if there hadn’t been a problem in the first place.
The O’Higgins commission of inquiry into McCabe’s complaints found that in the case of the adjusted Pulse records: “Serious questions arise as to the integrity of many of the updates [of the records] themselves.”
That was a judicially nice way of noting that the records were falsified.
The recurring theme in all these cases is that the falsification of records, work done or crime investigated always favours the force, or an element therein.
It always appears as if An Garda Síochána had done more work than was the case, investigated more crime than was the case, or was detecting more and more serious crime than was the case. Could all of this be a coincidence, or does a bear as the saying might go, go to the toilet in the woods?
The theme is constant, whether it be uncovered by an outside agency, or admitted within the force when the truth will no longer stay under wraps. False information is being repeatedly fed to the public for the sake of bogus public relations for management within the force.
How to tackle such a cultural malaise? One possible route would be to give some body within the force an independent legal remit to collate information and examine standards.
Part of this function is already undertaken by the Garda Inspectorate, although it has limited powers of inspection and discovery of information.
The Criminal Assets Bureau is an example of a body within law enforcement that has such an independent remit. To do something in terms of the collation and presentation of information would require a body with a large input for civilians, rather than gardaí who have been schooled in the prevailing culture.
Bodies like the Professional Standards Unit within the force could provide a template.
All of which, of course, avoids the bigger question: How did we ever get to a point where it’s becoming harder to believe anything that comes out of the force which reflects on the performance therein?
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