It’s vital our police force does not lose touch with the people

The most important weapon in the garda arsenal is the relationship they have with the community, so says Trevor Laffan
It’s vital our police force does not lose touch with the people

READY TO SERVE: A passing out parade at Templemore Garda Síochána College, Co. Tipperary, in 2016.

ABOUT 15 years ago, I spoke at an international policing conference in Barcelona on the subject of community engagement.

I described the systems we had in place Ireland back then that allowed the police, the local authority and the community to work together to solve local issues. I had an attentive audience.

When we broke for coffee, I was surrounded by curious and envious police officers who wanted to know more because this was an alien concept to them. Looking at the fractious relationships that exist between the community and the police in some jurisdictions, that envy was understandable.

Much has changed in An Garda Siochana since then though, and I’m not so sure we would get such favourable reviews today. 

Our style of policing was unique in the relationship it had with the community. It was a natural style of engagement that occurred in every town and village in the country.

Change is in the air though, and with the Force currently being led by senior officers recruited from the PSNI and other police forces, that’s not surprising.

The PSNI have a different style of policing, which is understandable given the nature of their environment and the issues they deal with, but I don’t want us following their path. Or any other path for that matter.

The Commissioner will soon be treated more like the CEO of a company and the functions of the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority will join forces to become a new Policing and Community Safety Authority.

An Independent Examiner of Security Legislation, will be established to have oversight of national security, while the finances of GSOC will also be separated further from An Garda Síochána to give it more independence.

It will assess and oversee the performance of the Gardaí and will have the power to conduct unannounced inspections of Garda stations.

The Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill is described as the biggest reform of policing in a generation, but while reform and oversight is essential, we don’t want a police force that is removed from engaging with the public and buried in administration either.

I heard a priest talking about the number of his colleagues leaving the ministry because of the pressure they are under. The increased burden of administration was one of the main factors and, while they are all getting older, their workload is growing.

Because of the shortage of priests, some parishes are being combined, which is doubling the workload for the remaining priests, with all the associated administration that goes with it.

The priest said they’re getting less time to do what they should be doing, working among the community, and instead, they’re getting bogged down in paperwork, balancing books, keeping records and filling forms. 

They feel they’re losing touch with the people, and I fear An Garda Siochana could be heading the same way.

In my time, most of us entering the Garda Training College in Templemore had preconceived notions of what the daily routine of a member of An Garda Siochana was like, based on the experiences we had from observing our local gardaí at home.

We saw them patrolling the streets on foot, driving patrol cars, dealing with the bad guys, and keeping the community safe. As members of the public, we didn’t get to see the work that went on behind the scenes, which was probably just as well, or we may have been turned off the idea.

Arriving in my first station in 1980, I soon appreciated the enormous amount of paperwork involved in policing. Reports, statements, record keeping, logs, returns, and creating summonses were all part and parcel of a tour of duty. There was paper flying everywhere, and it was usually in duplicate or triplicate, but the focus remained on being out and about dealing with the public.

As technology improved over the years, the demand for paper increased. We thought the introduction of PULSE, the garda computer system, would revolutionise the way the Force kept records and would reduce paperwork to allow gardaí to spend more time out on the street. It didn’t quite work out that way.

The computer records were backed up with hard copies which meant there was more paper in circulation than ever before. Additional records were required and, as we have seen in the past, they weren’t always accurate either, despite the technology. Change doesn’t guarantee improvement.

Policing was simpler in 1980, even though we didn’t have much. 

We wore bull’s wool uniforms that itched in the heat of summer and weighed a ton when they got wet in the winter, and the raincoats didn’t keep out the rain. In fact, they made you sweat so much that you got drenched even when it wasn’t raining.

We got on with it though and the backbone of the job was patrolling the streets and talking to people.

Getting to know the community was vital because you couldn’t solve anything without their help and their local knowledge. It was an uncomplicated, but effective, style of community policing.

That simplicity was diluted when management decided the organisation would function better using a business model. Business jargon entered the garda vernacular and policing plans were introduced in the noughties, but they didn’t always make sense, especially from a community policing perspective.

Reforming and modernising An Garda Siochana is all very well and it is an organisation that’s far from perfect.

The vast majority of gardaí are decent, well-motivated people who appreciate the fact that the most important weapon in the garda arsenal is the relationship they have with the community.

That is our uniqueness and the only way to develop that is to be out and about, talking to the people, like we did in the old days.

But I don’t see much of that now.

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