Measuring Garda performance – time for some lateral thinking

Garda ReviewA garda’s success is often crudely measured for example by the amount of arrests made, yet there is so much more to modern policing writes John O’Keeffe


The difficulty with measuring police performance has been one that has dogged police forces for generations. The very nature of policing is that it often sits in a cloud of subjectivity. One person’s good cop is another person’s bad. Consider your average throwing out time in any regional town up and down the country.

Garda A can come across a dispute between a male and female and decide that he is

going to try and calm things down. The woman initially wishes to press charges for assault against her boyfriend, whom she claims mishandled her in the street. Garda A manages to separate the female and talk to her calmly and gets her to explain the whole situation. After 15 minutes the women admits that the man did not actually physically touch her in any way but that she is upset because he has decided to take a new job up in Dublin. The couple regroups and heads off happier, if a little love-lorn, into the night. Garda B on the other hand affects an immediate arrest of the man. There is no discussion – this situation needs to be addressed right now and the only way this can be done is by getting him down to the station and charging him with assault, which he does. Sore heads and charge sheets are the order of the day the following morning.

 “There are problems as to how we correlate crime statistics. One man’s crime is another man’s bit of fun…”

Most would agree that Garda A did the right thing, got to the truth and there was no further drama and no arrests – a good moment of police work. Most would disagree with the actions of Garda B who asked no questions but simply put the metaphorical arrest boot in. Who will the system reward however? Why Garda B of course who has an arrest and charge under his belt. That’s a very easy box to tick. Problem is, it was poor policing. Surely then Garda A’s policing skills will at least be noted in some way? The simple answer is no – there is no box for considered and caring policing. An arrest and/or charge is a verifiable result – a happier couple is not. In this jurisdiction, very often it is the garda who racks up the charges who is seen to be the busiest and so the most suitable for promotion, After all, how do you measure the sort of policing shown by Garda A?

How we measure crime in a society is key. When we read the CSO statistics on crime, we latch on to them as if it was information handed down by Moses himself. The problem is, so do senior garda management. There are problems as to how we correlate crime statistics. One man’s crime is another man’s bit of fun. One garda can treat a certain crime as serious and record it in the proper way and another can see it as trivial and advise the complainant accordingly, thus leaving no paper trial of recorded crime – yet still leaving a victim.

In society, our own judgment as to what a crime is varies according to our age, education and socio-economic background and the notion of a “serious” crime is certainly not one-dimensional.  If society cannot agree on what crime actually is – particularly lower level crimes – we must then assume that police will have similar confusion.

So, if crime is not always reported for example, it does not get logged – plain and simple. Furthermore official agencies differ as to how and why they report crime and their numbers can be a reflection of both political and societal pressures to come up with the “right” statistics. Thus official statistics can therefore often be socially constructed reflecting bended truths that are filtered through a series of people and organisations with their own aims and agendas before we, the public, get to see them.

“You might even prevent criminal careers from progressing with your powers of persuasion and easy manner but dammed if your sergeant knows – or frankly, cares…

Violent and sexual offences for example routinely account for a comparatively small percentage of overall crime, yet because (among other things) of media emphasis on these crimes, the public imagine them to be significantly higher than they actually are. The problem is there is little joined up official crime reporting going on, so what we are left with are partial truths and much obfuscation based on vested interests and lazy attitudes.

The difficulty with all of this is that rank and file garda’s work is often parsed and challenged on the basis of these flawed statistics. Burglaries are up in your district. How come Mary has resolved 20% of those she has been investigating and John has only resolved 10%? That means Mary is a better policewoman, right? Wrong. It simply means Mary has affected more arrests and/or has had more successful investigations. It does not mean Mary is a better garda. She of course may be, but significantly more variables must be thrown into the pile before we can make this judgment.  John is after all regarded by all in his district as a superb communicator and a people person. John has never suffered any work injury not because he avoids confrontation, but because he prevents it. Yet how do we measure John’s work? This is the difficulty faced by so many gardaí up and down the country.  It’s an inaccurate numbers game and if you don’t keep pulling in the arrests and charges, you’re lazy – not, you’re doing such a good job that you are avoiding the need for further people to enter the criminal justice system. You might even prevent criminal careers from progressing with your powers of persuasion and easy manner but dammed if your sergeant knows – or frankly, cares.

A recent review in Canada on the use of police performance metrics is instructive. It looked at the seven dimensions of a “balanced” framework for accessing police, which included tracking police “performance metrics” in the following categories –  reducing criminal victimisation, calling adult and youth offenders to account in appropriate ways, reducing fear of crime and enhancing personal security, increasing safety in public spaces, using financial resources fairly, efficiently, and effectively, the use of force and authority legitimately and finally, satisfying citizen demands for prompt, effective and fair service. The report concluded that while “there is no one magic performance measure, nor is there a need to be excessively broad in trying to measure all activities…” “there appears to be a pressing need to build “best practice” measurement system design and implementation capacity,” across the police, it said.

The first thing garda management need to get their heads around, is the modern police space. Proper policing is a very broad church and is based not just on standard responses to (poorly) obstructed crime statistics. Check out the Canadian model and others. Yes, we must look to crime statistics for guidance on the trajectory of more serious crimes but we must only take it as a guide. Yes, we must also reward gardaí who affect arrests where such arrests were warranted. We must also however, look to the “quiet” world of policing where move the unsung heroes and heroines and for which no box has yet been created. It’s way past time garda management started to find that box, adopt best practice in this area, and acknowledge their rank and file accordingly.

John O’Keeffe is Director, School of Psychology & Criminology, City Colleges & Adjunct Teaching Fellow, School of Psychology, Trinity College, Dublin

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

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