What do we want from our Gardai?

HURRICANES of controversy are currently blowing around the head of yet another Irish institution - our police force.

HURRICANES of controversy are currently blowing around the head of yet another Irish institution - our police force.

Who authorised this? Who knew that? The minutiae may be of vital importance to the observance and implementation of the law, but most of it is unlikely to ever affect the ordinary, law-abiding citizen: the person who, by the grace of God, their own honesty and decency and good fortune, will never kill or injure another human being, or rob or steal.

And that constitutes the vast majority of people in Ireland. But they rely on their police force, the Gardai, to maintain the climate in which they can go peacefully and safely about their lawful business, without threat or hindrance. The maintenance of that climate is accepted as the most important role of the State and it is done via our Gardai and our courts of law.

We are aware of it as much by symbolism as we are by experience. A very, very long time ago, as I went to school each morning, I met Detective Sergeant Slattery. He lived in my parish in Irishtown. He was a very handsome, very tall man, highly respected and known to every citizen of Clonmel. As he steadily walked the streets on his way to the barracks each morning, he greeted people and they greeted him. Such was his presence and visibility that citizens felt that all was right with the world.

Yes, times have changed, but that obvious presence and visibility are, perhaps, the characteristics which most people miss in their police force today. Fast cars, high-tech equipment, Pulse, necessary though they now are, are no substitute for a presence, an identifiable face, a connectedness. The Sergeant Slatterys are, it seems to me, as relevant today in policing as they were a half a century ago. It is now called Public Relations.

Most of us, law-abiding citizens, never see a garda, nor could we name, or put a “face” on a garda in our local barracks. Yet, an important factor in the maintenance of that climate of law and order is a two-way function. It depends on interaction between citizens and police. They are inter-dependent. It is all about good communications.

And it is in the context of the apparent lack of communication that I have heard grumblings from some people I know. For instance, two women friends, living alone, in separate homes, were, to quote themselves, “broken into” and their jewellery was stolen. They were very impressed by the prompt arrival of the Gardai, and the physical investigation, but, as both my friends said, “that was the last we heard of it.”

They were both sanguine about their losses, and conceded that the jewellery was “melted down” and unidentifiable shortly after it was stolen, but they would have liked a subsequent visit from a garda, just to report progress, or lack of progress, in the investigation. Just one visit. Somebody to talk to.

Although it is some years since the car belonging to another friend was burned in an act of vandalism, she still talks about the fact that she was never informed if a prosecution ensued. Nobody came back to tell her. In recent times, an area adjacent to where I live, has experienced a number of house break-ins. While nothing very valuable was stolen, people have been frightened. Yet, while investigations may be underway, they remain uninformed and the popular patient response has been “Ah! that’s the last we’ll hear about it.”

This perception is unfortunate because it undermines confidence in our police force, and the value and quality of their work. And it seems to me that, despite some of the recent very serious blips in the system and particularly as revealed in the Morris and Smithwick tribunals, our Irish Gardai have a most honourable reputation for impartiality and efficiency in maintaining law and order.

In recent decades the force has stood between us, ordinary citizens, and dangerous anarchy. Gardai have lost their lives in the defence of our democratic freedom.

As a long-time court-reporter (in a previous life), I became aware of this dedicated and often-times dangerous public service. I, too, became aware of the stringency with which their evidence is tested in a court of law, as indeed it should be, since any police force is the custodian of much power.

But I also became aware of the basic decency and humanity of many members of the force, who gave a service above and beyond the call of duty.

I recall a Detective-Sergeant who did not have Christmas dinner with his own family, because he sensitively and discreetly supervised the visitation of a father excluded from the family home, so that he could join his family for the special meal.

There were many such services, freely given, but which, because of their sensitivity, never reached public knowledge.

Perhaps the Neighbourhood Watch/Community Alert was the most effective vehicle in public relations between people and police, but while widely launched its continuity and efficiency depended not only in the local involvement of the community, but very particularly on the leadership of the garda in charge. And here, it would appear that replacements were not appointed when that garda was promoted or moved to another location. Is there not an argument here for the active restoration of this public/police interaction and communication?

It would seem to me that, in the current climate when the institution of Irish policing is being held up for daily scrutiny, ordinary law-abiding people need reassurance. The concept, “that’s the last we’ll hear about it,” is undermining of that confidence. We need to see our Gardai. We need to know they are on our side. We need a modern equivalent of Detective Sergeant Tom Slattery as he walked the streets of Clonmel.

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