A couple of days before Lord Mayor Brendan Carr hosted a grand forum on crime last Wednesday, councillors in the central area debated a challenge they were facing: how to get city residents to turn up to similar local meetings without Joe Duffy as MC.
There used to be six fora in central Dublin for residents to go tell Garda what concerns they have about crime or anti-social behaviour in their neighbourhoods.
In 2015, those were merged to make three, which seems to have had a knock-on effect on the numbers that turned out, said Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam, chair of the Joint Policing Committee for Dublin Central. “The attendances did drop off,” he said.
“One of the meetings I chaired, there was one resident, who on this occasion wasn’t the deputy who lived in the area,” said McAdam. Only the Prussia Street forum seemed to work, but those numbers dropped off too, he said.
How, then, can Gardai and the councillors get residents interested again?
The fora used to work pretty well, says Peter O’Connor of the Community Policing Forum, a community-led organisation that also holds meeting to link up the public and Gardai.
“Residents could raise issues relating to crime and anti-social behaviour as well as environmental concerns such as illegal dumping,” said O’Connor. “Gardai noted issues and would give feedback at the next meeting – so this was a beneficial process for the local community.”
When the number of inner-city fora was cut to three – which corresponded to the Gardai’s administrative districts of Bridewell, Mountjoy and Store Street garda stations – the meetings seemed to become less relevant to people.
“The new areas were far too large and some residents became frustrated attending meetings, where what was being discussed was not relevant to their area,” said O’Connor.
The solution on the table at the moment is to run meetings by issue rather than by area: around anti-social behaviour, or Halloween, for example.
Social Democrat Councillor Gary Gannon said he thinks having meetings by subject – rather than by area – would be a good idea.
One of the fora could look at street harassment, which Dublin City Council has already looked into a bit through the Safer Cities Initiative, he said, at the joint policing committee meeting.
“It’s not only regarding policing, it’s regarding lighting on those streets, it’s regarding times that businesses are closing,” he said.
When Are They, Again?
Not everybody is convinced that the new system will work.
McAdam says he thinks even fewer people will turn out to the meetings, as fewer will know when they are happening. It is “at odds with the approach of central government, who are aiming to increase community involvement in governance and policing”, he said.
“It looks like the city council is pulling back from face-to-face contact with local people. It sends out all the wrong messages,” said McAdam.
There’s also the question of how issues of concern will be settled on, and what is left off the list. “If you don’t give the residents an avenue to articulate the issues they have – then how will they communicate them?” said O’Connor.
It’s true that not many people seem to know that there are community meetings to tell the Gardai what you’re worried about.
Around Dorset Street and the Mountjoy area in the early evening on Monday, it was hard to find anybody who had heard of community policing fora. But some said they were interested.
Caroline O’Byrne, a local resident, was on her way home from the shops. She said she might have gone to the meetings had she known they were on. She is concerned about begging in the area, she said.
Workers Party Councillor Eilis Ryan says the onus should be on the council to make sure that residents know. “If you want people to know it’s on, you have to do leafleting and postering. You have to do work to get people to an event,” she said.
If you do let people know, there’s still the chance they’ll be scared off.
Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn says that some people don’t want to be seen attending policing meetings for fear of being targeted. “Due to our history in this country, even to be called an informer is a very serious thing,” he said.
Too Many Fora?
Fine Gael’s McAdam says he plans to organise local meetings himself in line with the old hyper-local system.
But it raises the question as to whether we really need more community policing meetings, or to work harder to entice residents to those already set up. [Editor’s note: Pizza? Doughnuts?]
Flynn says there are just too many meetings. “There are Joint Policing Committees, Joint Policing Sub-Committees, Community Policing Fora, then in some areas, there are neighbourhood watches going on as well. There is a lack of joined-up thinking around all of this,” he says.
(To make matters more confusing, the Community Policing Fora are also called Safety Fora in some areas.)
There are some differences: the Joint Policing Committees are open to representatives of residents’ groups, but not all residents; the Community Policing Fora are open to all; the Community Policing Forum liaises continuously with Gardai and residents and the council, not just through meetings.
But there’s overlap too, says O’Connor. The issues highlighted for the new issue-based meetings are already being dealt with by his organisation, the Community Policing Forum, he says.
We’ll see how the new approach works. “Because they were so poorly attended, we are trying this different approach to them, but whether it is issues-based or held on a three-month basis, there needs to be work done to get people to attend,” said Ryan of the Workers Party.