Trevor Laffan: New Commissioner, new plan — but the same old problems

What does retired garda Trevor Laffan make of the latest modernisation and renewal programme announced for An Garda Siochana? 
Trevor Laffan: New Commissioner, new plan — but the same old problems

PLEDGES: Commissioner Drew Harris announces a new Garda Operating Model last month. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

A MAJOR restructuring programme for An Garda Siochana has just been announced by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

On the face of it, it looks ambitious, but we’ll have to see it fleshed out before a proper determination can be made.

With every new plan, the divide between the gardaí and the community seems to grow wider. Maybe this will be different.

The ‘Modernisation and Renewal Programme ‘2016-2021’, as announced by the former Garda Commissioner, Noirin O’Sullivan, was also hailed as an attempt to propel An Garda Siochana into modernity. I had concerns about certain aspects of that programme too, and I thought that much of what it contained was nothing more than what had been promised previously.

I suggested at the time that it was an opportunity for the organisation to get its act together and there were many good people within the Force just looking for leadership. I also suggested that if it wasn’t a genuine effort to change, we would be back here in another few years, with the launch of yet another programme for renewal to replace the current one.

I didn’t think we would be here this soon though, but I’m not surprised either. Back then, the core message of that plan was conflicted. It promised one thing but delivered another. On the one hand it claimed to be all about the community; “We are in and of the community. Community policing is key and core to what we do”. Only it wasn’t really.

In 2007, I was involved in designing ‘The National Model of Community Policing’. The organisation was committed to the community and this Model was going to be the blueprint for future engagement. But the ink was hardly dry on that plan when it was scrapped due to the lack of resources. The organisation had other priorities and commitments, so the community would have to wait.

Way back in 1994, 27 years ago, I was told by a senior officer that community policing was a luxury we couldn’t afford. The demands for resources from other sections of An Garda Siochana were more urgent and needed to be addressed before any consideration could be given to the softer side of policing. The community would have to wait.

That attitude prevailed for most of my time in community policing, and that was the guts of 20 years. Community policing was a difficult job at the best of times, but it wasn’t made easier by having to constantly fight with management for an end to the constant abstraction of community policing officers from their duties. They were always needed to fill gaps elsewhere in the service because of the shortage of manpower. The community would have to wait.

Now, Commissioner Harris wants An Garda Síochána to be better placed to deliver Community Policing, with the support of communities, right across Ireland. I’m not sure if he intends setting up specific community policing teams to achieve that or if he means that all officers will be engaging with the public; we’ll have to wait and see.

There is a difference though, between policing the community and community policing. Policing the community is a general term for the functions carried out regularly by a police force, whereas community policing is achieved through dedicated teams working together, with the specific purpose of developing community engagement.

The latter can’t function without support and his decision to give Chief Superintendents more power, to make them more autonomous, could upset that particular apple cart.

Historically, there has been little buy-in to the community policing philosophy by many in senior management positions. Apart from this being common knowledge within the organisation, it was also identified by the Garda Inspectorate. This meant community policing was often relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder when it came to identifying priorities in policing plans.

A more autonomous chief superintendent with little interest in that philosophy will continue to prioritise other demands at the expense of community policing, unless he or she has sufficient resources, and lack of resources is always going to be an issue.

In the previous plan, former Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan and the then Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, dismissed concerns that rural communities would see a depleted service. The communities would not suffer, they said, even when it was obvious that they would. And they did.

Commissioner Harris has also dismissed those same concerns, insisting instead that under his plan, it would be the exact opposite with 1,800 more Garda members deployed to the frontline, some of those having been released from clerical duties.

That sounds positive but on the flip side, approximately 700 members will retire in the next few years and 150 gardaí will be promoted to the rank of sergeant, while others will move into plain clothes and specialised positions. They will all have to be replaced. When you spread the remainder of the 1,800 across the rest of the country, they won’t go far.

Civilianisation of clerical positions is not a new idea either. When I was stationed in Blackrock Garda Station in Dublin in 1980, I took up a temporary position as a clerk in the district office. I was advised not to get too comfortable because civilians would soon be doing my job. That was 40 years ago.

The Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021 stated, “We will enhance our model of community policing to deliver the style and type of policing that shows our commitment to making communities safer. We will establish Community Policing Teams (CPTs) in every District.”

It’s easy to establish CPTs but it’s a different matter to support and resource those teams to enable them to function. That hasn’t happened yet, but community policing continues to be the main focus of every plan.

On paper anyway.

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