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Mark Stedman

Analysis This week's policing storm illustrates the differing views on the roles of Gardaí

The criminologist Dr Ian Marder explores the myths and realities of policework and looks at where else we might invest.

LAST UPDATE | 4 Apr 2023

THE RECENT OPENING of a recruitment campaign for 1000 Gardaí will seem like a no-brainer to many. A target of 800 new recruits in 2022 was missed drastically, with only 94 joining.

The questions around why that number was so low are valid, given ongoing reports about low morale in the force along with today’s headlines showing plans by middle-ranking Gardaí to withdraw labour over rosters. 

For those in Ireland who believe the police are ‘on their side,’ recruiting more Gardaí may appear a reasonable investment. Between Garda retirements and trainee resignations, population rises and a drive to increase force diversity, some will believe that more Gardaí creates a safer, fairer country. Of course, this feeling is not universal. How you feel about the police often depends on your position in society.

Many believe that the Gardaí simply reinforce an unequal status quo, protecting property and maintaining a separation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’

As my colleague Cian Ó Concubhair explained this week, this sentiment underpinned the image that Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin shared at the weekend. It was clear from the political and media storm that followed that different understandings of policing exist in this country. 

It is not a new observation nor something unique to Ireland that police forces were established to defend property at the expense of equality. From a criminological perspective, these debates will hopefully enable a wider conversation around our expectations of what the police do and achieve and the implications for where best to allocate finite resources.

Nature of policing

We can start by understanding the nature of the role itself. Many people, often influenced by the media, think that the Gardaí spend a significant proportion of their time battling organised crime. Yet, crime-fighting of any kind represents a small percentage of police work, and most offences to which police react are at the lower end.

Aside from their legal powers, the key characteristics of policework are the breadth of the tasks we expect them to do and the urgency with which we expect them to act.

We expect police to respond to crime: to investigate, detect, arrest, interrogate and collect evidence. But we also expect them to be ever-present on our roads, at sporting occasions and other events, reassure us with visible patrols and community engagement, and oversee the night-time economy. We seek an immediate response to an array of requests for help: from first-aid, bereavements, missing persons and mental health, to peacekeeping, school support, child protection, lost property and immigration registration.

Our sky-high expectations of Gardaí mean they are social services of first and last resort. As policing researcher Egon Bittner wrote, they must respond to anything ‘that ought not to be happening and about which someone had better do something now.’

It is for these reasons that the police spend only a minority of their time on crime-related activities. The myth that the police are exclusively or primarily ‘crime fighters’ means that the breadth of their role is largely absent from media and political representations of their work.

Does increasing police numbers prevent crime?

As Gardaí effectively have an infinite list of tasks, it is very easy to argue for more police to do them. There are certain things I want Gardaí to do more of that require resourcing, such as participate in dialogue with communities. Some Garda activities, from which resources can be reallocated, clearly waste time and cause harm. Whether this would unlock enough resources to provide a meaningful response to, for example, gender-based violence, however, remains uncertain.

Still, we must understand what can and cannot be achieved by increasing officer numbers. For one, we have little reason to suppose that more Gardaí will reduce crime. Researchers have explored the relationship between police numbers and crime rates, concluding that there is insufficient evidence to feel confident of a causal link.

The widespread belief otherwise is what we call the police’s ‘impossible mandate,’ where we expect them to achieve something – crime reduction – that is largely beyond their control. Most crime is neither reported nor detected, people offend for reasons unrelated to police staffing, and police detections are overwhelmingly of low-level offences.

The expectation that police can affect crime levels corrupts both the way we measure police success, and how the police see themselves. It creates perverse incentives to focus on low-level, easily solved crime.

It also means that vital community support is seen as ‘soft’ (inside and outside the force), and is deprioritised as a result.

With more Gardaí, we might expect to see more detections. But we have no reason to believe the average seriousness of detections will increase. As more low-level offences are charged, we may see more court backlogs (to both victims’ and suspects’ detriment), despite evidence that prosecuting low-level offences can increase crime.

More charges might also mean more people who commit minor offences being sent to prison. Irish prisons are dangerously overcrowded with people who commit minor offences or have addiction or mental health issues better treated in the community. This is despite evidence that prison does not reduce, and may even increase, offending. In other words, assuming that increasing police reduces crime could have the opposite effect, putting our safety at risk.

A different approach

Fortunately, whether new resources are provided or not, Gardaí can keep communities safer by changing their approach. For example, research supports the use of problem-oriented (rather than incident-oriented) approaches to find sustainable solutions to crime and non-crime issues. Proactive problem-solving is cited in the last Garda Policing Plan, but whether or how this happens is unclear. Restorative justice can reduce violence, but the latest data suggest that, too, is seldom employed.

Research commissioned by the Department of Justice found that victim satisfaction relates more to how people feel they are treated than the outcome of their case. Again, Gardaí can radically improve the service they provide by changing, rather than increasing, their activities.

Meanwhile, other countries invest in non-police, but evidence-based, ways to improve public safety. Durham, England, saw reduced reoffending from a programme in which police can refer people who commit even serious offences to mental health, drug and restorative interventions.

Smart forces hire and collaborate with social workers and mental health nurses, and the NHS now works with police to identify people for whom health interventions are the key to crime prevention. Changing drug use from a crime to a health issue had positive effects on Portuguese society.

In Ireland, community mental health and drug treatment services are grossly underfunded, creating work for Gardaí they are not best placed to handle. The Government has provided some new funds for victim support. But you can still count the staff at some of the most crucial services – such as the Crime Victims Helpline, Victim Support at Court and Restorative Justice Services – on one hand.

What if Ireland invested in 800 Gardaí and 200 mental health nurses? Or 900 Gardaí and 100 victim support workers? And where is the investment in early childhood that will have the greatest role in preventing crime in the future?

You may think it should not be ‘either or.’ Perhaps it should not be. But the reality is that resources are finite and their allocation is driven by political perceptions of what government thinks we want them to prioritise – hence the nice, round soundbite of 1000 new Gardaí.

Before allocating finite resources to improve public safety, we must acknowledge the limits of what the police can achieve and the costs of failure to invest elsewhere.

Dr Ian Marder is Assistant Professor in Criminology at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology. He is an expert in criminal justice reform and seeks to communicate the lessons from this area of research to a wider audience. 

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