Kieran FitzGerald, Commissioner of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, speaks to the Frontline during a time of much change in the Force
This edition of the Garda Review is published at yet another time of great significance for the Garda Síochána. The appointment of the new Garda Commissioner demonstrates a desire for a new perspective and a willingness to break with tradition. The turbulence of the last few years has also given rise to the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. That Commission is expected to report in the near future and we can anticipate that its report will have significant things to say about the culture and the structure of the Garda Síochána.
The reality for gardaí on the front line is that change must be managed in conjunction with the day-to-day job of maintaining law and order in the land. Many gardaí will be quick to tell you that the job is hard enough already without the added burden of trying to change systems in midstream. So, can the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission help in that regard?
To address that question, we should look at some things that haven’t changed much over the last 10 years. One is the number of complaints that GSOC receives on a yearly basis – around 2,000; giving rise to about 5,000 allegations. The second is the nature of the vast majority of those complaints – discourtesy, neglect of duty, abuse of authority and at the more serious level, assault.
Sadly, there will probably always be some members who breach the regulations or the law and these will always require robust responses. In less serious situations, GSOC encounters many instances where small changes in the way gardaí and the public interact could have meant that there was never a complaint in the first place. GSOC is trying to find a way to deal with these situations without having to put gardaí and members of the public through the tortuous process of disciplinary investigations.
During the past year, we have, in partnership and with the enthusiastic cooperation of all ranks at Pearse Street Garda Station in Dublin, conducted early intervention which involves gardaí communicating with complainants and seeking to resolve some simple matters by way of discussion, explanation or other action that might reassure a complainant. This kind of proactive response by the Garda Síochána has great potential to improve community relations.
GSOC is of the view that change is necessary to the way complaints against gardaí are managed. In December 2017, we submitted a detailed proposal for legislative change to the Department of Justice and Equality. We have also submitted that proposal to the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. It’s available for anyone who wants to read it on www.gardaombudsman.i.e.
We have proposed many changes. Three stand out as particularly significant. One is the enabling of more efficient and earlier resolution of less serious complaints – hence the trial of new processes mentioned above. This proposal is prompted by our belief that the current system is too focused on retribution and punishment of gardaí and not enough on restitution for complainants. Second is the placing of responsibility for all investigations with GSOC – this should add to the independence of investigations and the perception of same. Thirdly, the simplification of the very complicated processes contained in the Garda Síochána Act 2005.
The current system dictates that disciplinary matters can only be investigated when investigation into criminal allegations has been concluded. We believe this adds unnecessarily to the length of investigations and is unsatisfactory to gardaí and complainants alike. We believe our proposals, if implemented, can benefit everybody.
This time of change presents us all with significant opportunities to improve our systems, our culture and ultimately, our service to the public.
For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.