The Garda’s community policing system is “under strain” and has been “marginalised and undervalued”, the police watchdog has heard.
Dr Johnny Connolly, a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, said fundamental structural changes within the force were needed as gardai were increasingly dealing with non-crime related issues.
The Policing Authority held a public conversation on community policing oversight in Dublin on Thursday.
Last year, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recommended the establishment of a new Policing and Community Safety Oversight Commission.
A core function of the new body would be to promote inter-agency working and scrutinise the role of all agencies as they affect policing and community safety.
The Department of Justice is in the midst of drafting legislation for the new body, which when established, will supersede the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate.
Mr Connolly said the commission was left with no choice but to recommend the model of community safety oversight.
“I don’t think we were left with a choice but to come up with something like that,” he said.
Mr Connolly added that Gardai think of themselves as a community policing service, which he described as being “all about frontline police, knowing their communities well, being visible and engaged in those communities and developing mutually respectful partnerships to solve problems and achieve community safety”.
“There are many excellent gardai who know their communities well and perform an exemplary service,” he told those gathered at the event.
“But it is clear that the community policing system as a whole is under strain, neither the structure of the police organisation nor its practices support the image it has of itself as a community policing service.
“Notwithstanding a great deal of rhetoric in Ireland as with many other countries, community policing within our police organisation is marginalised and undervalued.”
@PolicingAuthIRL Chairperson Josephine Feehily re-emphasising that the key issue at hand is a need to understand âwho is responsible for community safety, and on understanding that, what is the oversight body in charge of overseeing?â #CommunitySafetyOversight pic.twitter.com/pCn5YAwC0t— Policing Authority (@PolicingAuthIRL) July 25, 2019
Mr Connolly said “fundamental change” to the Garda as an organisation both structurally and culturally was needed because at present community policing was a specialist activity within An Garda Siochana with only about 10% of gardai in a district designated as such.
Mr Connolly said the focus on public policing has broadened beyond crime and that gardai was spending an increasing amount of time “supporting the more vulnerable members of society… people with mental health conditions or substance misuse problems, homeless people, children and elderly people at risk, and those left behind in poverty or social exclusion”.
“The Commission heard repeatedly throughout our consultations that An Garda Siochana is constantly called upon to engage in non-crime uses, many of which could be conducted by other agencies,” he added.
“However, it has to be acknowledged too that the professional police everywhere are often both the first port of call in that people go to them because they don’t know where else to go and are then directed elsewhere or they are the last port of call as there are no other sources locally available or accessible due to it being the evening.”