Garda informants must be handled with care

As part of the ‘Irish Examiner’s third day of analysis on the Garda Inspectorate report, Cormac O’Keeffe uncovers the crisis in the force’s informant handling system

IT IS a grey area — both ethically and legally — for the gardaí and one which has again raised its head.

The handling of informants, in the main criminals, is a thorny and complex one for all police forces.

Following the behaviour of some gardaí and their informants in Donegal, and the subsequent damning findings of the Morris Tribunal, the entire system was overhauled.

A new system, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS), was put in place in 2006 and was modelled on similar systems abroad, including in Britain.

Under the new system all informants, or human intelligence sources, had to be passed on to a central system, where their names and details were handed over.

They would be assessed as regards their motivations and suitability and if accepted would be interacted with by a different garda, a handler, who in turn was supervised by a controller.

It was meant to put structure to the shadowy world of garda-informant relations and ensure the system was not abused and complied with European human rights laws.

In the midst of all this, we had the controversies surrounding a particular informant, drug trafficker Kieran Boylan, who was working for a specialist national unit. This was unknown to the Garda National Drugs Unit, who arrested and charged him for supplying drugs.

His charges were subsequently, and without explanation, dropped, resulting in concerns in political and human rights circles. Later, a Garda Ombudsman investigation, spanning four years, resulted in a file to the DPP, who decided against prosecuting any gardaí.

A report by GSOC expressed serious concerns about the Intelligence Source Management System (which ran up until 2006) and its successor, CHIS.

It called for training for handlers, accurate and complete recordings of dealings with informants, new disciplinary sanctions for gardaí who breached policies, guidance on so-called participating informants (those continuing to be involved in criminality) and “independent and intrusive” oversight on the system.

All of which makes the findings of the Garda Inspectorate’s Crime Investigation report, published last Tuesday, all the more interesting and startling.

In chapter 8 of the 500-page tome, it goes into some detail about the little-known system.

It said Garda HQ had invested “significant resources” in CHIS units, which operate nationally and regionally. The assistant commissioner for crime and security has overall responsibility and divisional chief superintendents and regional assistant commissioners have leadership roles.

It said the National Source Management Unit (NSMU), within crime and security, operates the system and manages a national register of all CHIS.

The handlers put details of referrals for possible informants onto a computer intelligence system, which is operated by the Security and Intelligence section of crime and security. It is separate to the Pulse computer system.

The intelligence computer system was in bad condition, said the report, and was being replaced by a new Major Investigation Management System (MIMS).

It said the prospective human intelligence source is assessed by a handler, with a “particular look at a person’s motivation”.

The inspection report reveals that between 10 to 15 referrals are entered onto MIMS on a daily basis — equating to between 3,650 and 5,500 people.

The report said that half of referrals are assessed as suitable, suggesting between 1,825 and 2,750 informants a year. These figures have not been revealed before and give an idea as to the scale of the system.

But it is the inspectorate’s analysis of the effectiveness of CHIS which is most worrying — and one which has major implications for the force.

“The inspectorate found limited evidence that any actionable or useful intelligence on volume crime was being returned to districts and divisions from those CHIS who were successfully registered.”

Volume crime refers to mass offences, such as burglaries, car crimes, thefts, assaults, vehicle crime, criminal damage, robbery, and drugs.

The report said that in some cases, local detectives had referred people to CHIS and often the intelligence returned was not the original attendance and “in many cases no information was ever received back”.

It said: “The current approach to CHIS has resulted in gardaí becoming reluctant to engage with people who may be able to provide useful intelligence for fear of breaching garda policy.”

The report said it recognised that criminals had to be managed within clear guidelines but that the current approach was “not encouraging the effective use of a valuable source of criminal intelligence”.

It said very little evidence was provided at local level about CHIS intelligence which led to the arrest or provided positive support for an investigation, with exceptions in more serious crimes, such as murder.

The failure of the system was particularly acute in assisting investigations into volume crime.

“With burglary and car crime offences, it is crucial to be able to identify individuals that are committing crimes and persons or places that are receiving stolen property,” it said.

It concluded: “The current CHIS system is not operating to support volume crime investigation and opportunities are being lost to capture and act upon valuable intelligence; which would assist in bringing offenders to justice. The current system has limited if any credibility with the majority of detectives and senior gardaí who met with the inspectorate.”

And it said all the procedures that had been put in place to prevent abuses in the system are preventing CHIS from functioning.

“It is the inspectorate’s view that the safeguards, which were introduced after the Morris Tribunal, are inhibiting the use and tasking of CHIS. The regular three monthly review process undertaken for every CHIS is heavily bureaucratic and time consuming.”

All of which places senior Garda management, the new Garda commissioner, the new Policing Authority and the Department of Justice, in a dilemma.

The system obviously needs radical overhaul. But the really tricky bit is restructuring the system which will make it more flexible, more effective and more in tune with policing needs while at the same time adhering to demands, and legal requirements, for tight control and human rights protections.

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