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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Leah Farrell

'I was a garda for 35 years and I can tell you community policing has been destroyed'

Trevor Laffan, who is recently retired, said the hard work put in to build up relationships in the community have been ruined by bad bad decision-making.

BOTH THE GARDA Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and the Minister for Justice France Fitzgerald have commented in recent times about the possibility that Islamic State terrorists may attempt to enter Ireland.

Both have suggested that community policing and sections of the Special Detective Unit (SDU) will be providing the first line of defence for our national security. Community policing will be providing intelligence on potential terrorists through their relationships developed within the immigrant community.

I don’t claim to know much about the SDU or the sections that operate within it, but I do know that surveillance is hugely resource intensive. I very much doubt that this unit would be able to provide meaningful and sustained surveillance given the resources at their disposal.

Building relationships in the community 

Community policing on the on the other hand is something I am very familiar with having spent the bones of twenty years involved in it. Given the current state of community policing in this country is it really capable of providing that first line of defence?

Probably not, given that community policing no longer exists. It has been deliberately and knowingly deconstructed by a combination of an incompetent leadership and political interference. Anyone who claims otherwise is either misinformed or is being economical with the truth.

Historically, An Garda Siochana was always enshrined in the community. There were always gardai who became involved in sports clubs, called into primary schools and became part of the social fabric of the community. During the late eighties there was a feeling that gardai were becoming disconnected from the general public and ‘Community Policing’ was introduced in an effort to reverse that trend.

Over the following twenty years, that’s exactly what it did. Initially, community gardai were tasked with developing Neighbourhood Watch, a crime prevention strategy, and the Garda Schools Programme. Beyond that there wasn’t much of a plan but, as time passed, community policing teams pushed the envelope and developed very successful methods of community engagement.

Some areas of the country were more successful than others, so in 2007 a decision was made to develop a National Model of Community Policing to standardise it across the jurisdiction.

The heart of Irish policing 

Also in 2007, the Garda Inspectorate published a report, “Policing in Ireland – Looking Forward”. This report stated that, “Community policing should be at the heart of policing in Ireland. An Garda Siochana must strive continuously to maintain the confidence of the community. It must be the fundamental policing philosophy at the core of the organisation.

That can only be achieved with the commitment of the entire force from top to bottom”.

This was welcomed by those who were involved in community policing because it was the first sign of official recognition since its inception in the late eighties. Up until then, this aspect of policing was very much the poor relation.

Publicly, senior officers were supportive but privately, very few bought into the philosophy believing instead that if you weren’t chasing criminals in a patrol car then you weren’t doing anything worthwhile. If there was a shortage of resources, then community policing officers were first to be redeployed. This too has recently been acknowledged by the report of the Garda Inspectorate.

Cracks begin to appear 

Any hope that the National Model of Community Policing was going to was going to ride in on a white steed and save the day was quickly dispelled. It was launched in 2009, but the ink wasn’t dry on the National Model when cracks began to appear.

The extra resources that had been recommended in the document were no longer available. The embargo on recruitment was putting a strain on already depleted numbers employed on regular duties. A new roster system was being developed for the purpose of creating a better work life balance. A fifth shift was being created and members of the community policing teams would be required to make up the numbers.

The consequences of this in simple language were that community policing officers were now operating in a shift pattern completely unsuited to community engagement. It meant ten hour shifts, the majority being afternoon and night shifts, working as part of a unit with four days off at a time.

Effectively, this put huge restraints on the amount of time they could commit to community engagement during daytime. There could only be one outcome. Community policing would fail and fail it did.

Dedicated units needed

The recent report of the Garda Inspectorate has confirmed this. Community policing is practically non-existent in Ireland as of December 2015, “..there are concerns about the resourcing levels currently deployed to community policing duties. The Inspectorate found significant reductions in the number of members assigned to community policing and some divisions have no dedicated community policing units”.

It also confirmed what we already knew, that the roster introduced to community policing was, and still is, unsuitable to community engagement.

“Before moving to a new roster, a police service should be certain that it provides the best possible match to policing demands”. This clearly didn’t happen. It further states that the ‘one fits all’ type roster system was never going to work and it calls for that to be revisited. But that’s too late for community policing.

Many of us argued against the imposition of a new roster. Once it became inevitable that change was coming I forcefully argued for an alternative roster for community policing. I personally had many discussions with senior officers arguing that community policing would not survive.

I warned that the relationships that had been developed over twenty five years would be lost within a very short period. The trust would be broken and this would be difficult to restore. The outcome was predictable and, having spent the guts of twenty years involved in community policing, it was very difficult to accept.

The envy of other countries 

In 2009, I spoke to a gathering of police officers at a conference in Barcelona and I outlined the model of community engagement that we were using in Ireland. I explained the type of relationships we had with local authorities, voluntary and statutory organisations and the general public and the various fora we used to engage with all elements of the community.

During many subsequent conversations with other delegates, I came to realise that we had something that other jurisdictions were extremely envious of. They would have given their right arm to have what we had and we just discarded it.

The most infuriating aspect of this is that it was all so obvious to everyone except those ‘experts’ charged with designing and implementing the new roster system. Privately, during numerous discussions, many officers admitted to me that they were not in favour of the changes.

Privately, many expressed the opinion that these proposed rosters were a disaster. Now, after the damage has been done, the Inspectorate report recommends, “To develop multiple rosters that optimise the deployment of all garda resources and specific rosters for those responding to calls for service, those on national, regional and divisional units such as traffic and community policing”.

The emperor has no clothes

Which begs the question, if so many senior officers were against the changes, how did they come into force? Unfortunately, it’s not too difficult to understand. The simple answer is that no officer was prepared to stand up and be counted. None of them had the courage to point out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. It was never an option to speak out because to have done so would have had the potential to impact negatively on their chances for promotion.

In my experience, officers generally don’t have any long term plans for their areas of responsibility.

They tend to operate on an annual target of getting to the next promotion interview without having made a mistake. Without having dropped the ball. The priority during their tenure is to maintain a steady course, follow orders, get to the next interview in the best possible shape and hope for the best.

Controversy is to be avoided at all costs and most importantly, always follow the party line.

As a result of this, the community gardaí that remain are now employed performing duties that have little to do with their job description. Some have asked to be reassigned while others continue to be frustrated by a system that denies them the opportunity to do what they know needs to be done. The remainder seem to have accepted their fate and they now concentrate their efforts on regular policing duties while enjoying their four days off.

What will the organisation learn?

So what of the decision makers who are responsible for creating this shambles, what is to become of them? What sanctions will they face for creating such a fiasco? What will the organisation learn from this and what will be the response to the recommendations contained in the report of the Garda Inspectorate? Don’t expect too much. They will probably keep their heads down, ignore any criticism, implement a few minor changes as a token gesture to the Inspectorate and carry on as before and wait for the next promotion interview.

Now this brings us back to the remarks of the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner who are both of the opinion that community policing will be providing the intelligence on potential IS terrorists who at some point in the future, may decide to live among us.

These gardaí will be providing the first line of defense, apparently.

Is it possible that the Minister and the Commissioner are not aware that their first line of defence has disappeared? Is it the case that the nodding donkeys have once again failed to break the news of the naked emperor?

It would appear that we are putting our protection against IS in the hands of people who don’t exist. They in turn are being controlled by people who don’t know that they don’t exist while all the time receiving encouragement from the nodding donkeys that everything is going according to plan.

Trevor has recently retired after 35 years service in An Garda Siochana. He previously worked with the United Nations in Cyprus as Sector Commander. He was involved in the design and implementation of the National Model of Community Policing which was designed to provide training and instruction on the introduction of community policing to all areas of the country. He was involved in a two year European project on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design which examined crime prevention initiatives across the EU and was responsible for writing the final report which he presented to the EU Commission in Brussels. He introduced an anti racism initiative in Cork City. He is currently on the board of the Chernobyl Children’s Trust.

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