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The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice works to combat injustice and marginalisation in Irish society, through social analysis, education and advocacy.

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People in prison are amongst the most marginalised and vulnerable in our society. The majority have left school early, experience literacy and learning difficulties and have a history of unemployment... Click here to view all of our material on Penal Policy

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Exploring Social Justice

Why Care - Social Justice Awareness for Younger People

An Apology to the Gardaí

2005
I recently criticised publicly the actions of a Garda, who confiscated money from a young homeless man, and I was totally wrong. This Garda had arrested the young man and brought him to a Garda Station for a drug search. No drugs were found on him. On release, the Garda told him he was confiscating half of the money he had in his pocket on the grounds that he suspected that that money was the proceeds of crime, namely selling drugs. The young man came to me and told me what had happened. There appeared to be no justification for the Garda's actions. I rang the Superintendent of the Garda Station to complain but he told me that he supported the Garda's action. He was unable to give me any reason to justify his support for the Garda. It appeared to me that he was covering up for the unjustifiable action of the Garda and I told him so. We had an almighty row over the phone!

However, some months later, I discovered that the arresting Garda was in fact part of an undercover operation. A young undercover Garda, who dressed, behaved and looked like a strung-out drug user, asked the young man if he had any heroin. A job in the Abbey Theatre is assured to this group of undercover Gardaí in the Drug Squad! The young man sold him a bag of heroin for €20. The other Garda then arrested the young homeless man as if it were a random arrest, so that the anonymity of the undercover Garda was maintained. Although no further drugs were found on him, the Garda knew that at least €20 of the money in his possession was the proceeds of a drug sale and so confiscated about €100 from him. When I rang the Superintendent to complain, the Superintendent was unable to give me any reason for the confiscation of the money for to give me the reason would have revealed the undercover Garda operation. So I suspected a cover–up. The Garda Commissioner launched an official investigation but again was unable to communicate to me the truth without disclosing the undercover Garda operation. Again, my suspicions of a cover-up were confirmed. When eventually the young homeless man was charged with selling drugs and the truth of the incident emerged, I apologised unreservedly to the Garda involved, to the Garda Commissioner and to the Superintendent.

I accept that the Gardaí have an increasingly difficult job to do in this increasingly addicted and violent society and many of them do it extremely well. For example, we have a drop-in centre for young homeless people and the local community Gardaí requested that they might be able to drop in from time to time. I was a little hesitant, as most of these young homeless people are very alienated from the Garda and I was afraid that if they became abusive to the Gardaí, it might do more harm than good. Indeed, the first few times the community Garda called in, everyone walked out! They didn't want anything to do with the Garda and they certainly didn't want their friends to think that they were 'fraternising with the enemy'! However, the Garda persisted. He comes in on a regular basis, with no agenda. He sits down and has a cup of tea and just allows the young people to say what they want to say, which is often critical of the Gardaí, and he responds in a way that is respectful of their opinions, defends his colleagues when he believes that they should be defended, and joins in the conversations without being judgemental or superior. He has the personality and character to mix with these young people and believes that what he is doing is an integral part of being a policeman. He, nevertheless, makes it very clear that if he finds them committing a crime, he will arrest them; that is part of his job. Now the young people have come to respect him and often arrive into the drop-in centre, asking: “When is that Garda going to be here?” They come to seek his advice, to sort out problems with the law which they may have, to get Garda ID forms or passport forms signed and he does it all with great good will and a hard neck – for he often has to listen to their complaints about the way they were treated by the Gardaí knowing that he can do nothing about them, or in some cases, like my story above, knowing that their complaint may not be justifiable. He may not have changed their very negative opinion of the Gardaí but now they at least say that not all Gardaí are the same – and that is a major step forward. The sad part of this story is that community gardaí have little status within the Garda Síochána, the job is seen as an “add-on” to the “real” job of policing, and he will be withdrawn from his role as community Garda every time a President from Lego land arrives in Dublin airport and needs an escort. In fact, what he is doing is at the very heart of good policing, the building of relationships of trust and respect with the community, which was the essence of policing in the past when our society was much less complicated, and remains the essence of policing even today. This Garda's time in the drop-in centre, judged 'useless' in a society which wants quantifiable results, has enormous potential to reduce crime, as he helps to reduce the alienation from society that many of these young people experience and which they express in crime and anti-social behaviour.

While acknowledging the great work of many gardaí and the fact that I, like the public, may not have access to all the facts in every case where the Gardaí appear to abuse their authority, nevertheless, where abuse occurs it ought to be challenged. My criticisms, while they inevitably highlight the abuse of authority by individual Gardaí, are nevertheless focused primarily on the inadequate structures of accountability within the Gardaí In any organisation with 11,000 members, it is reasonable to assume that some of those members will abuse their powers if they can get away with it. Hence, structures, which are adequate to identify and discipline those that abuse their power, are vital, but often absent. For example, a Garda can confiscate money or property from people if they have a suspicion that the money or property is the proceeds of crime. No evidence to justify their suspicion is necessary. This gives Gardaí, who wish to harass someone, the freedom to do so with virtual impunity. Again, the onus for protecting a person against assault while in a Garda station lies with the Sergeant-on-duty in that Garda Station. What protection is there if the Sergeant-on-duty tolerates the assault or even joins in, as is sometimes alleged to me? The Morris Tribunal has revealed an appalling litany of abuse by some Gardaí in Donegal, which went undetected for many years. If similar abuses were happening elsewhere today, would the Garda authorities have any way of even knowing about it?

Posted in Gardaí

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