Promoting trust and confidence between the Traveller community and the gardaí is essential to modern policing writes Martin Collins
PAVEE Point Traveller and Roma Centre is a non-governmental organisation committed to the attainment of human rights for Irish Travellers and Roma. The group is comprised of Travellers and Roma and members of the majority settled population working together in partnership to address the needs of Travellers and Roma as minority ethnic groups experiencing exclusion and marginalisation. The aim of Pavee Point is to contribute to improvement in the quality of life and living circumstances of Irish Travellers and Roma through working for social justice, solidarity, socio-economic development and human rights.
It is well documented and accepted that there is a long history of mistrust and poor relations between the Traveller community and the gardaí and indeed the wider judicial system. When you ask Travellers what their views are in relation to the gardaí they usually perceive it as another repressive arm of the State that is designed to control, contain and harass them. A survey conducted on Travellers’ experience of policing found that 38% of respondents said they had been discriminated against by gardaí (Irish Times, 28 February 2001). When Travellers talk about discrimination by gardaí they raise issues such as being called a “knacker”, as indeed I personally was.
They also raised issues such as under policing (i.e. they’ll sort it out among themselves) and then the other extreme of disproportionate, over-the-top, invasive policing, such as Traveller weddings and funerals, and also racial profiling.
In the summer of 2010, I was the victim of a crime and yes it must not be forgotten that Travellers are also victims of crime. The stereotype is that we are only perpetrators of crime. My wife runs a small business from home selling household products, washing powder, etc. and I want to emphasize that we are registered for VAT. In any event, we were the victims of a burglary and approximately €3,000 worth of products was stolen from us. We rang the guards, who duly arrived at the scene, and began to take some forensics and statements. I recall a conversation I had with a guard who said to me, in no uncertain terms, that Travellers were responsible for this robbery. I found this statement to be incredible as the crime hadn’t even been investigated and there was no evidence to point to anybody, let alone Travellers. I responded to the guard by saying that the ethnic origin of those responsible is totally irrelevant. The fact is I had been a victim of a crime and I wanted the perpetrators brought to justice.
“For this ambition to be realised it requires courage and leadership from both within the Traveller community and An Garda Síochána…”
The other concern I have is when this guard arrives at the scene of other crimes does he make the same statement? If he does it is bad practice, unprofessional and reinforces the stereotype that Travellers are inherently untrustworthy. I hope that this was a once off? In summary, rightly or wrongly there is a strong perception amongst Travellers that we are not afforded the same level of service and protection by the gardaí as the settled community.
Pavee Point recognises that there are many challenges and issues to be addressed if we are to create an inclusive and effective police service, one in which Travellers can have the utmost confidence. And I believe that An Garda Síochána also recognise this.
Pavee Point first began to work with An Garda Síochána in 1996. At that time we tabled a proposal with the management at the Garda Training College. The proposal outlined a training programme focusing on anti-racism and interculturalism, and Traveller issues more generally. This training was delivered a couple of times a year to the Phase Three recruits. This proved to be a very useful mechanism for dialogue between Travellers and the gardaí. There is no doubt, in my view, that it had a very positive impact on how Travellers should be policed, what they should expect from a police service and it also assisted in dismantling the prejudice and stereotypes that many of the trainee gardaí would have had of Travellers.
When the embargo is lifted, we would certainly like to resume the training. Presently the garda diversity strategy is being written up and Pavee Point has been involved in the consultation process. Again, the purpose of such a strategy is to reinforce the view that we are now living in a more culturally diverse society and that our institutions need to reflect the population that they serve.
Pavee Point also has a very positive working relationship with the Garda Racial and Intercultural Office and has found this office to be very receptive to the challenges facing the Traveller community in terms of their policing needs. We also have the ethnic liaison officers who are providing good service and a link between An Garda Síochána and different ethnic groups. These initiatives point out that the garda management are serious about putting anti-racism and human rights at the core of policing in Irish society and also with the creation of the Garda Ombudsman office it is serious about holding those guards to account who do not adhere to the highest of standards in their policing duties.
“Pavee Point recognises that painstakingly over the years some progress has been made in creating the conditions where trust and confidence can be built between Travellers and the gardaí…”
We all know that there are many many guards who conduct themselves with integrity, fairness and professionalism and some gardaí who don’t. What we need is not an individual response in how we police a multi-ethnic society, but rather an institutional response that points to the need for equality anti-racism training both pre-service and in-service. It also highlights the need for equality codes and practices and also the need for positive recruitment policies so that Travellers and others can have the ambition of becoming a guard.
Pavee Point recognises that painstakingly over the years some progress has been made in creating the conditions where trust and confidence can be built between Travellers and the gardaí. I would suggest that these are only the foundations and that there is a lot more work to be done to realise the ambition that we all want; that is to say a police service that is inclusive and responsive to Traveller needs and in turn a service that Travellers can have allegiance and loyalty to. For this ambition to be realised it requires courage and leadership from both within the Traveller community and An Garda Síochána.