Context is King

Our overriding priority has always been the communities we serve. And now, that has just gotten a lot more difficult writes Damien McCarthy

We have always protected the vulnerable – but now everyone is vulnerable to an invisible enemy. Pearse Street Station is at the epicentre in Dublin 2. The DMR South Central is the biggest Garda Division in the State. The challenges are policing the busiest section of the capital city, containing the seat of government, the centre of social nightlife and an inner-city community that lives with social disadvantage. It was already stretched before, but overnight we were confronted with the challenges of the Coronavirus; the entire Force adapting to unprecedented challenges to ensure public safety and deliver a vital service. Let’s be clear – this puts our members in harm’s way.

Society is unrecognisable. The intensely crowded streets are largely empty by night now. Eerily empty. It is too early to say how the community is affected by the lockdown; what new tensions and anxieties might emerge and the impact they may have. We have to be vigilant that the empty streets may attract criminals and predators seeking to take advantage; our presence is as vital as it ever was.

The new roster was implemented swiftly across the Force. The membership had to adapt to ensure the service is enhanced; this is a new challenge and perhaps the most serious challenge the State has faced since the civil war. We have uncertainty; many of the population are afraid and want to know that we remain in control.

The simply heroic efforts of members have and will continue to be acknowledged on a daily basis. However, we have experienced recent attacks on our members. Suspects resisting arrest, spitting, biting – and one case of a member being stabbed. Fortuitously, his stab vest protected him from serious injury or loss of life. These incidents are not be tolerated under normal circumstances, and can never be accepted as an occupational hazard, but particularly during this crisis there must be every protection afforded by the State. The judiciary have been robust in their response and this is welcomed.

There will always be the criminal element in society who attempt to capitalise or seek every opportunity to inflict harm and instil fear in members of An Garda Síochána, but we will not back down.

We have many forms of accountability, many layers of scrutiny and pressure to perform to given standards. When the situation presents itself and we or someone in the community are at risk or exposed to serious harm or injury we retain the right to protect ourselves and use force. Recent articles on use of force by members in the DMR South Central puts us on top of that list.

Much emphasis has been attached to the Garda organisation to supply data to the Policing Authority about when and where we use such force. Every need to use force is preceded by a potential life-threatening situation; a person in their place of work experiencing real danger. Does this have an effect on us? Yes, most certainly. In policing, nothing can be evaluated effectively without context. We do not police in a vacuum. So while we accept there is the need to gather the data relating to the use of force to ensure that coercive power is not being misused; there is also a requirement to gather more information and recorded data – did gardaí receive the appropriate support services in the aftermath of such incidents? Were enough working personnel detailed to respond in an appropriate manner? Was any member waiting inordinately for backup?

Commentators are quick to judge online by voicing opinions on edited footage recorded and circulated with the intention of portraying us as the aggressors and assaulters; framing the debate in terms of ‘abuse of power’ and the ‘disregard for human rights’. It’s easy to be a keyboard critic from the comfort of their home. It’s not as easy in the arena; acting and responding in real time. No time for pause or reflection. We welcome independent, fair, unbiased, impartial and balanced scrutiny – it protects our reputation and enhances our profession. When taken in the context of the diversity and sheer intensity of policing needs, these numbers become proportional. The DMR South Central may have more uses of force than any other division; but it is proportional to the population, public order, protest, and policing numbers of a modern metropolis.

While we dust ourselves down from traumatic events, we remain determined to protect and serve our communities. The months ahead will be more challenging for all. When each member reports for duty we will all be unsure of what each shift will bring. There will be underlying anxiety. But we can be certain of the dedication, bravery and commitment of our members.

Damien McCarthy is a former President of the GRA and CEC Representative for Dublin South Central

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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