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'People saw it as toxic': Why just seven gardaí made submissions to the breath test probe

Many members of the force felt senior gardaí had already made their mind up about who was to blame.

Rank-and-file members said they felt they were already being blamed before the investigation had started.
Rank-and-file members said they felt they were already being blamed before the investigation had started.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THIS WEEK AN Garda Síochána revealed the full scale of the breath test scandal. Its internal investigation found a discrepancy of 1.4 million tests over an eight-year period.

In the course of his examination, Assistant Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan identified three factors which contributed to the 71% discrepancy in the figures – recording issues, breath test inflation by gardaí and estimation of numbers in the Pulse system.

His review involved an examination of Pulse data, listening to calls made by garda members from checkpoints, meeting with representative groups, interviewing officers of all ranks and visiting other jurisdictions to assess their systems. He had also invited submissions from members of the force.

Just seven gardaí made submissions to the enquiry. Though Michael O’Sullivan said this input “gave a useful insight into practical issues face by garda members”, that was seven submissions from a force of more than 10,000 rank-and-file members.

According to one garda, “people saw it as toxic”. “Why engage with management? They thought ‘Why bother?’. There was a general apathy around the whole thing,” they said.

The Garda Representative Association (GRA) has yet to make a statement on the results of the investigation, but one GRA source said they were not surprised only seven members contributed to it.

“Two or three months before the request for submission went on the garda internal system, the Commissioner had publicly said that line, that at best it was incompetence and at worst deception. You’re hardly going to get a great response after that. People felt like management had already made their minds up,” they told TheJournal.ie.

We were also aware of the fact that they’re seeking someone to blame, wanting to discipline a few over it. At that time there was a lot of talk in the hallways of garda stations across the country that the Traffic Corps were being pointed at and blamed and might be disbanded.
Members became quite cynical and fearful, they thought ‘if I get involved am I putting my head out on the chopping block?’

Those not involved in any incident of inflating numbers just wouldn’t want to get dragged into it because expressing an opinion might come across as if they knew someone who had done it and hadn’t reported it,” another garda explained.

“In the early stages when members didn’t need to keep record of the alcometer [breath test device] start and finish readings some would have kept a count and others just a genuine estimate how many they did and they wouldn’t want to be included in the blame so they would stay clear of submitting.”

‘Stopped and controlled’ 

O’Sullivan’s report highlighted a number of alarming issues in relation to training (or the lack thereof), communication from management and the way in which the data was being collected.

Most of these figures were logged by garda members who called the Garda Information Services Centre (GISC) in Castlebar where a call-taker would take the information from them. The investigation revealed there was mass confusion about what the term “stopped and controlled” meant. This was one of the required data fields on Pulse and was defined as the number of negative, positive or failed breath tests conducted.

It emerged that a large proportion of the force did not understand this with many believing it meant the total number of vehicles they interacted with. This is demonstrated by an example of a GISC call in which both the call-taker and the garda are uncertain about what the term means.

Call-taker: Number of vehicles stopped and controlled?
Garda: Is that the number of vehicles through the checkpoint or number of vehicles breath tested?
Call-taker: Well the way I reckon
Garda: I reckon it’s stopped and breathalysed is it? [This definition is correct]
Call-taker: Even if they are not breathalysed, if you stop them and stick your head in the window, aren’t they controlled, that’s my thinking on it. [This definition is incorrect]
Garda: We will go with you…Ah 120 went through…
Call-taker: How many negative breath tests?
Garda: 30 and 30 – sixty. Ah 80, 90 we will say.

‘We weren’t told it was important’

Another issue with this section of the Pulse system was that a checkpoint could not be created if no cars went through. O’Sullivan was told that some gardaí may have just provided a number so management would know they had done the work they had been told to do.

“We can’t escape from the fact that people were inflating numbers, and we’re not trying to excuse it. But you could be out doing a checkpoint in the wilderness over a 20-minute period and not have any car come through. You can’t put it on Pulse if no cars came through so you might say five, just to put a number on it. We weren’t told it was important. What was important for us was the number of drunk drivers, the number of arrests for drunk driving,” one GRA source told TheJournal.ie.

Another garda described the system as being designed in such a way that “you had to lie sometimes”.

“When you rang up Castlebar, they need to speak with a briefing member [the sergeant who authorised the checkpoint and briefed members]. We wouldn’t be briefed because there was no one to do it. You’d tell them there was no briefing and they’d say ‘well we have to put in someone’,” they said.

In these instances the garda might give their own name, or the name of a sergeant in the station who hadn’t actually briefed them.

“That was one lie.We were being told go out and do one at 3am and there were checkpoints with no cars coming through. It had to go on system, so now you’ve maybe had to tell two lies just to get it on there. What does that tell you about how accurate it was?”

O’Sullivan’s report found examples of where there were “no supervisory sergeants available for entire shifts; not to mention specifically to supervise M.A.T./M.I.T. checkpoints”.

“Supervision of these checkpoints appeared to be an exception rather than a norm,” he noted.

Irrelevant information

The report found there was almost a universal lack of knowledge among divisional and district officers that breath test data was even recorded within the section, or ‘tab’, on Pulse in which checkpoint statistics were recorded.

Now that they know about the tab, O’Sullivan said there is “widespread confusion” about the relevance of much of the information that members are required to provide within it. In his opinion it is “unfeasible” for members to record some of the information currently required, like the total number of vehicles passing through or the time delay to motorists, while also conducting breath tests.

“At a time when we had no staff to investigate serious crime and we had roaming gangs robbing people, the call-takers in Castlebar were asking what the weather was like when we were doing a checkpoint. You could be half an hour on the phone, it was madness,” one garda said.

The impact of the recession on the organisation’s resources is clear throughout the report. Numbers of rank-and-file members  were dropping, sergeants had multiple briefs, continuing professional development training stopped – there was no training in the use of the Drager breath test devices between 2009 and 2016 - and there was no money to spend on new equipment or systems.

“As country guard, say seven years ago when this started, we were in freefall, we didn’t know what was coming around the corner. We had no resources, no cars. The culture was we were being told to have incidents on Pulse otherwise we’d lose our car. We were competing with the next station – all this stuff was called ‘smart policing’,” one source said.

“The buzz words of ‘doing more with less’ and ‘smart policing’ were bandied about as if to say that re-organising how we do things would be more than sufficient to cover the loss of manpower. It wasn’t. So when detections fell, another way of measuring productivity was along the lines of ‘well if you didn’t get a drink driver at least show how many attempts you made to get one’,” another said.

One garda member who spoke to TheJournal.ie said management is “obsessed with statistics”.

I can’t get it straight in my head why there was any need to elaborate the number of breath tests, but if anyone was benefitting from it, it wasn’t rank-and-file members. Your supervisor wouldn’t ask did you do the checkpoint, they’d ask if you logged the checkpoint on Pulse. All the emphasis was on creating incidents on Pulse and getting the narrative right – not on investigating crime.

The fact that only seven gardaí made submissions to the investigation, some claimed, just further demonstrates the disconnection between the top and bottom levels of the force. Rank-and-file members, they said, had no interest in engaging with management on the issue.

“What’s going on in the higher levels is so far removed from what we’re doing it bears no connection to our job. If I’m totally honest the latest controversies are completely irrelevant and water off a duck’s back,” one commented.

“The folks on the ground are keeping everything going while the top level attempt to hang each other. I think people are starting to forget that while all the scandal goes on we’re still out working.”

Read: Garda survey finds almost two-thirds of Irish public think force is not well managed>

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