‘Perfect storm’ led to falsification of breath tests

At one point, the latest exorcism of An Garda Síochána points to a “perfect storm” that resulted in the staggering falsification of breath tests, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.

The forces include:

  • Unrealistic targets as well as expectations and pressure by management on the frontline;
  • A recording system that was baffling and flawed;
  • A complete lack of training on how to operate the system;
  • A failure to explain to members what was needed — and why it was important;
  • A lack of supervision, from the first supervisory rank, at sergeant level, right the way up to commissioner.

But, on top of these forces, the Crowe Horwath report points to the much-referenced “culture” of the organisation to basically play fast and loose with the facts to boost performance.

This culture was a key driver and enabled “unethical behaviour” by garda members.

The Crowe Horwath report, commissioned by the Policing Authority, examined both the breath test scandal and the wrongful convictions of motorists for fixed charge noticeoffences.

It identified common themes to both controversies: poor or inadequate IT systems and technology; lack of training, inadequate supervision and deficits in accountability.

On the breath test issue, the authors said: “A key finding of this review is that these technical and functional matters were compounded by a culture within the organisation that did not recognise the importance of accurate recording but in addition, in a much more damaging sense, created a dynamic of maximising data outcomes due to management pressure, expectations, and lack of professional curiosity when the outcomes exceeded capacity.

“This culture was a key driver for and enabled unethical behaviour by Garda members who falsified checkpoint data, as well as the practice of reporting estimated, rounded-up figures for breath tests where accuracy in such detail was not considered important at any level in the organisation.”

The auditors said they were “particularly concerned” at the slowness with the organisation in responding to the issues as they emerged after 2013.

The report clearly identifies that “pressure” by management on frontline gardaí was a major factor — to an extent that seems to differ from the weight attributed to it by the Policing Authority.

The report said: “With specific regard to the recording of MIT [Mandatory Intoxicant Testing] data, the pressure to record improving results and unrealistic expectations of performance were central factors which drove the recording of false or inflated information.”

But the authority and its chair Josephine Feehily said issues of training, supervision or management did not “absolve” garda members from making, or encouraging, “inaccurate and dishonest” returns.

In her characteristic sharp way of cutting through a complicated issue, Ms Feehily said: “No training is required for behaving honestly and ethically”.

In yesterday’s briefing with Ms Feehily and Shane McQuillan of Crowe Horwath, Ms Feehily was asked were gardaí on the frontline under pressure.

She said: “Were they acting under pressure? I’m not sure”.

Instead, she pointed the finger at the “culture” in the organisation, a culture where it was easier for members to “inflate or falsify” figures than to “speak up”.

But Mr McQuillan said “very definitely” frontline gardaí felt under pressure to say they conducted the required checkpoints.

The authority and the auditors also seemed to differ on the issue of pursuing disciplinary or even criminal proceedings against gardaí.

Ms Feehily did admit any such process would be “very difficult” but stressed it was the commissioner’s choice and wanted to see his plan of action at their public meeting on 23 November.

She said given it was a cultural problem at heart — and given the scale of the falsification — that a performance management system was what was required.

The Crowe Howarth report cites the view of frontline gardaí that they were “feeding the beast” in reporting good, albeit false, data.

The auditors and the authority are agreed that while certain, mainly technical, progress is being made, there still remains the innate cultural problem — to protect the good reputation of the organisation, before and above all else.


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