MICHAEL CLIFFORD: It’s high time we took the politics out of our policing

The complete lack of leadership, both within the force and from its political masters, has been key to the failings highlighted this week, says Michael Clifford

ALAN Shatter would ruefully appreciate the findings of the Garda Inspectorate report into crime. The case over which Shatter ultimately resigned as minister for justice illustrates perfectly one of the main themes running through the inspectorate’s report.

In January 2012, Sgt Maurice McCabe made a confidential complaint about then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. McCabe’s beef was that the commissioner was about to promote a superintendent, whom, McCabe alleged, had, as district officer in Bailieboro, Co Cavan, been negligent in a whole range of serious criminal investigations. McCabe cited the 12 most serious cases in his complaint.

Shatter dealt with the matter by referring it to the commissioner, a course of action criticised in the Geurin report.

The main issue, however, is that the commissioner was apparently intent on promoting the superintendent — referred to in Guerin as Foxtrot — irrespective of his record. It didn’t matter that the station sergeant had compiled a list of up to 40 cases that reflected badly on Foxtrot’s management. It didn’t matter that an investigation by an assistant commissioner had upheld some of the less serious complaints. (The most serious would all be fully endorsed by Guerin, who vindicated McCabe’s judgement entirely.)

All that mattered was Foxtrot’s time had come. He had served as a Super for four years. He was, by all accounts, “a decent man”. Some within HQ might even have felt sympathy for him, for having his work subjected to scrutiny by a “whistleblower” within the force.

Even after the complaint in January 2012, channelled through the minister for justice, no pause for consideration was given. Foxtrot was promoted within weeks. Another member of the club getting a leg-up to a higher salary, a better pension, a little more status. Neither the standard of work and supervision he had done, nor the appalling public service dished out to some victims of crime during his tenure, held any sway. That was stuff to be quietly brushed under the carpet, while pursuing the greater goal of “doing right by one of our own”.

Foxtrot’s experience was not unique. Another senior officer, now retired, was given a promotion in his last year of service, despite being seriously criticised by a High Court judge in the preceding months. All that apparently mattered was the man in question would be in line for a better pension if promoted, and so he was.

One of the main issues that informed McCabe’s complaints was a lack of engagement with the day-to-day policing by Superintendent Foxtrot. The Inspectorate’s conclusions of general policing concurred.

“While many senior gardai stated that they have an ‘open door policy’, it was highlighted (by rank and file members) that very few step outside of that door and engage with their staff.”

This paucity of leadership is key to the failings highlighted by the Inspectorate. What emerges from the report is a picture in which superintendents are absent, for one reason or another, from the frontline, leading inevitably to a serious deficit in standards and discipline. Even those Supers who rail against the moribund culture at senior level are tied up with administration and being redeployed from the frontline for a whole range of other functions.

And what if a superintendent brought to the attention of senior management structural problems? Would it affect his or her career, their status within the club? Would he be regarded, as Sgt McCabe was, with suspicion rather than welcomed for enunciating fresh ideas? Little wonder then that there is virtually never a breaking of the ranks once officers have begun to rise through the ranks.

Another crucial issue raised also echoes with what happened in Bailieboro. In the focused career ladder climbing there is a “churn” of superintendents in many districts. Again, this practice cuts through the type of continuity that basic leadership requires.

The Morris Tribunal identified this shortcoming in Donegal, and recommended that superintendents spend at least two years at a posting. Yet Guerin highlighted that over the course of McCabe’s less than four years as station sergeant in Bailieboro, he served under five superintendents. (The first four were all fulsome in their praise to Geurin of McCabe’s professionalism.)

The Inspectorate identified the problems associated with churning, and pointed out that many superintendents travel long distances to work, rather than relocate to their new district.

Among the recommendation are to “introduce minimum term tenure for chief superintendents and superintendents” and “Develop a new approach to the posting and deployment of superintendents and other supervisors”. If such measures had been implemented post Morris, things would hardly be as bad as they have been exposed in this week’s report.

A leadership deficit isn’t confined to the force. One of the more shocking findings of the Inspectorate is the lack of basic training. The bulk of all garda recruits since 2005 — numbering 5,000 in total — have not received training in basic interviewing techniques, while a third of detectives are not properly trained.

This is a direct legacy of the “auction” politics of law and order exhibited by government and opposition during the bubble years. It was all about the number of recruits, and to hell with the quality. If the government said garda numbers would be raised to 12,000, the opposition would demand 13,000 and so on.

All that mattered was what could be put on an election poster to simply illustrate a commitment to “fighting crime”. No consideration was given for the implications of shoving increased numbers into Templemore without corresponding enhanced training facilities and personnel.

The disregard for proper training was best illustrated by the then minister for justice Michael McDowell, who wanted one in every four gardai to be a “reserve”, or part-time, hobby bobby. Sure, anybody can do this policing lark, just throw on a hat and a badge and off you go.

The complete lack of leadership, both within the force and from its political masters, has been key to the failings highlighted this week. A new police authority is expected to take the politics out of policing, but we’ll have to wait and see whether that expectation will be properly met. An even bigger pointer is who will be tasked with pulling the force free from the nefarious elements of its culture.

The choice of new commissioner of the force will tell a lot.

 


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