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Opinion: GSOC has made a difference - but it needs reform

DCU’s Dr Vicky Conway looks at the development of GSOC since its creation, ahead of a new study of complainants’ experiences with the body.

Dr Vicky Conway

THE GARDA SÍOCHÁNA Ombudsman Commission was borne out of the scandal of the Morris Tribunal, bringing independent investigations of garda actions for the first time.

Its predecessor, the Garda Síochána Complaints Board, reviewed investigations conducted by gardaí on foot of complaints against the gardaí. All complaints were internally investigated, with the Board reviewing the outcomes.

The Morris Tribunal concluded the Board was simply incapable of handling issues of the scale and complexity as what arose in Donegal, describing it as ‘woefully inadequate’.

Justice Morris found that the superintendent investigating matters in Donegal on behalf of the complaints board met with the ‘Blue Wall of Garda denial… [and] was being fed a particular line by many of the Gardaí’.

The Complaints Board was well aware of its shortcoming and had, on more than one occasion, suspended its operations due to insufficient funding and resources, and it had itself called for the creation of a new body.

New beginning

GSOC, which commenced operations in 2007, was given the power to independently investigate an Garda Síochána, with its officers given policing powers to enable those investigations.

In a country that had long resisted independent accountability this was momentous.

GSOC receives around 2000 complaints a year, involving some 5000 allegations, predominantly related to abuse of authority, assault, neglect of duty and discourtesy. In addition to complaints, GSOC can conduct public interest investigations and all occasions of death or serious injury following police contact must be referred to it. It makes recommendations where complaints are upheld, with the Garda Commissioner deciding on sanction.

GSOC has a variety of mechanisms at its disposal for the handling of complaints, including informal mechanisms, investigations conducted by gardaí but supervised by GSOC, and wholly independent investigations.

When we look at the figures, we see that despite what was hoped for, the creation of GSOC did not bring wholesale independent investigations. About a third of complaints are deemed inadmissible and so are never investigated.

The 2020 Annual Report shows that 42% of investigations are in fact still conducted by gardaí. The Commission on the Future of Policing further found that the body is perceived by some as being part of an Garda Síochána, rather than an independent body.

Blue wall

On the other side of this question of independence, GSOC has regularly commented on the difficulty of getting information and cooperation from An Garda Síochána. Protocols have been put in place to speed up the transfer of information but even last year in its annual report it complained of being left in the dark by garda management.

Concerns about delay are frequent, most recently following the shooting of George Nkencho where the family have expressed concerns at the slow progress of the investigation. Gardaí have at times also complained about the delay in the resolution of complaints, as members await outcomes.

GSOC has been open about having insufficient staff with its current complement at just under 200, with four investigator positions unfilled. It has also commented in its submission to the Commission on the Future of Policing that its processes are unwieldy and overly complex.

Rather than simply investigating complaints, complaints must be classified and dependent on the classification different processes and powers come into play.

The Commission also pointed to the fact that the system is fixated on the wrongdoing of individual officers, an approach that doesn’t allow for assessment of the adequacy of garda policies and procedures, or the relevance of the actions of others.

In this space, the Commission recommended significant reform which has now been published in the heads of the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill. The new body, as proposed by the Commission, would be entirely independent and would be focused on investigating incidents, not individuals.

Its remit would extend to non-sworn (i.e. civilian) members of the organisation. It would also investigate wrongdoing identified internally, and not just that complained of by the public.

Reform due

So we are likely to see significant reform of GSOC in coming years. At the heart of that reform should be an informed appreciation of what has and has not worked about GSOC, particularly from the perspective of those who have made complaints.

In other jurisdictions, complainants are surveyed about their experiences of engaging with police complaints bodies. GSOC has done a number of surveys around satisfaction over the last decade but these have been surveys of the general public, not complainants specifically.

They have asked about the public knowledge of the office, their confidence in how they would be treated, their sense of its impartiality and so on. These are important barometers, indicating for instance that a third of respondents believe GSOC is part of An Garda Síochána, but they don’t help us to understand what it’s like to make a complaint.

Facing such significant reform, understanding how the complaints process has been experienced is essential. So I am conducting a study of those experiences. I’m looking for anyone over 18, whose complaint has been finalised by GSOC to complete a survey of their experience which you will find here.

I want to understand why you complained, how you were treated by GSOC, how happy you were with the investigation, how you felt about the outcome of the investigation and how you have been left feeling about GSOC from your experiences. I’ll be conducting interviews with some who have been through the process. The findings of the research will be presented to GSOC and to legislators, in the hope of informing their work.

An effective, independent body to deal with complaints against the police is an essential dimension of any democratic state, committed to human rights and improving policing.

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How that body will work for the foreseeable future is now being shaped and it will be for the betterment of all if that work is informed by those who have been through the process.

Dr Vicky Conway is an Associate Professor of Law at DCU. Author of Policing Twentieth Century Ireland she is a former member of both the Policing Authority and the Commission on the Future of Policing. She also hosts the Policed in Ireland podcast.

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Dr Vicky Conway

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