Policing remains a numbers game

John O’Keeffe examines garda strength at the close of 2017 and advises that we continue to fall way short of the mark

As of November 2017, there were 13,381 sworn members of An Garda Síochána, with some 11,000 members at garda rank. Depending on who in government or garda management you choose to believe, our numbers are at best, right up there with other comparable jurisdictions or, at worst, getting there if we hang on long enough. The reality is markedly different. Whether we are ‘policing smart’, or policing by numbers, or a combination of both, An Garda Síochána simply does not have, nor is it likely to have, enough men and women to properly and safely police the public it serves in 2018.

The organisation has suffered across the board over the last 10 years. Staffing of garda drug units for example has fallen by almost a third since 2011. The number of gardaí assigned to dedicated divisional grade drugs-units has been slashed from 361 officers in 2011 to 253 in 2014 and there has been little or no improvement since this time. Across the country is no different. Figures released by the Department of Justice and Equality show a decrease in garda numbers across the Cork City division for example between 2015 and 2016. Other parts of the country have seen their local forces depleted by some 10%.

Since the first Fine Gael led government in 2011, over 130 garda stations have shut. The Force has dropped from 14,500 five years ago, to 13,381 today. Garda numbers continue to struggle to settle at the minimum threshold of 13,000, set by a former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan. This is despite the resumption of recruitment in September 2014 after an enforced break of five years. There have been only marginal gains since, as relatively small recruitment campaigns, continue to fail to catch up with retirements and departures.

A brief skim across some EU jurisdictions shows that Ireland – notwithstanding that we are two years into the Modernisation and Renewal Programme – has fallen woefully behind in numbers compared to certain other police forces. Spain has 506 police officers per 100,000 of population, Portugal 462, Italy 411, France 390, Belgium 371; yet, even with recent recruitment, Ireland languishes at 327. Have we all missed something? Is Catalonia such a threat to Spanish peace that it now requires a national force at almost 35% higher than our own, relative to population? Is a new Bastille Day beckoning in France that means it needs to commit to an increased Force of some 16% compared to its close EU neighbour? Do these countries have exclusive jurisdiction over the threats of internal and external terrorism compared to Ireland?

The answer of course is a resounding, no. While individual EU countries face specific threats from time to time that are peculiar to themselves, terrorism and crime now has no borders – EU or otherwise.

So An Garda Síochána struggles along with a Force of 13,381 to serve a population of 4.8 million people. Notwithstanding the historically unique nature of policing in Northern Ireland, even in peace today, the PSNI still retain a Force of over 7,000 serving a population of only 1.8m. This would equate to an equivalent Force size in the Republic of close to 20,000 officers. There is a very strong argument to suggest that the threat levels from dissidents and drug gangs in the Republic is now far higher than that of Northern Ireland. Even if we believe that the threat is more nuanced in the South, the fact remains that by the standards of a Force 60 miles away from the capital, we should now surely have the strength of An Garda Síochána at in or around 18,000 men and women.

Let us play devil’s advocate however and say that at the end of 2017 Northern Ireland is in such a state of disarray that it requires a Force of 435 per 100,000 of population, but in one of the drug gang bases of Europe, the Republic, only requires 327 officers per 100,000 of population.

Scotland will thus provide a further comparator. It has a population of 5.3 million yet boasts over 18,000 sworn officers. On a Police Scotland comparison therefore, An Garda Síochána numbers should sit at over 17,000 officers – an increase of 4,000 men and women on our current figures – or about 30% more than An Garda Síochána’s current strength. 

No matter what way you stack up the figures, on any fair comparator, there are simply not enough frontline members to support Ireland’s increasing population levels – in both an urban and rural context. An optimum numbers survey would soon show how far we are still behind in terms of police numbers.

Over the years, and to this day, successive governments have plugged this recruitment gap by enforcing overtime on an often-overworked group of gardaí. Indeed, much of the very successful policing work that has occurred in the last year in the Dublin region especially, was made possible because of the availability of overtime. From burglaries to crime gangs, from shoplifting to public disorder, the citizens of this country were, and are, best served because of this safety valve.

However, overtime is not a medium to long-term solution to a policing shortage. It is the cheapest form of policing and it never replaces full time rostered members deployed permanently. Indeed, it is recognition that frontline gardaí do not have adequate police resources. Adequate policing numbers remains the only long term solution – not overtime.

Put simply, and according to best local international practice, there are not enough police officers per head of population in Ireland serving their communities to achieve normative policing outcomes. There is no longer a visible garda presence in urban areas and even less in rural Ireland. Street and neighbourhood patrols – the heart of successful policing – have been slashed due to falling or stagnant numbers.

Lack of recruitment has now been replaced by accelerated recruitment, which, while welcome, has not been adequately prepared for and by definition, merely moves with economic, not societal demands. Young recruits now work on units without senior member supervision for guidance and CPD schools are barely able to cope.

In 2018 and beyond, government and garda management must approach this crisis by revisiting the Modernisation and Renewal Programme as it relates to recruitment. Government must ensure that fresh supplemental budgets are provided to increase the Force to acceptable international standards of comparable jurisdictions. This will mean – at the very least – an increase of at least 4,000, from its current, historic low level.

There must also be a radical re-haul of the administrative duties currently undertaken by frontline gardaí. Further civilian staff need to be expeditiously recruited to ensure these gardaí can return to the streets and into the communities they purportedly serve.

Policing is not just about numbers, it is also about policing according to what we know works best and works smartest. No one however seriously believes that the organiation can provide a proper policing service to the Irish public unless they have sufficient men and women on the ground to meet the needs of the people. Let them now protect and serve efficiently – and without delay. n

John O’Keeffe is Spokesperson for the GRA. He is also a Criminologist and Lecturer in Forensic Psychology.

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

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