How Dublin’s streets are policed will soon, we hope, change. An Garda Síochána is undergoing structural reform, with human rights at its core.
Police have some of the greatest powers of all state agents: the power to use force and the power to detain someone. A human-rights-based approach is a way to ensure that the Gardaí don’t abuse or misuse this power.
Recent months have shown early signs of change at An Garda Síochána. It has a new human-rights unit, for one. But there’s still a long way to go to make sure that current promises don’t go the same way as past recommendations: nowhere much.
In a monthly column, we’ll be tracking what’s happening with policing reform: what’s still being teased out, what’s being rolled out, what’s working, what’s not.
Front and centre, we’ll be seeing it through a human-rights based approach.
One principle is that only the least amount of force that is absolutely necessary is ever lawful. A second is that when someone is arrested, searched or held in custody, respect for their dignity must be paramount.
Currently, if a guard arrests someone on Dublin’s streets, there’s a lot we don’t know. Have they been trained properly in a human-rights-based approach? Is there a clear law or policy explaining what they can and cannot do?
If they misuse their powers by arresting someone with no clear basis in law, treat someone in their custody inhumanely or use disproportionate force, who can you complain to and how will they be held to account? And how often does that happen?
How often do the Gardaí use force with batons and pepper spray and against whom? Do they profile people based on race or ethnicity? And are certain communities, such as immigrant or Traveller communities, treated differently to others?
Currently, we don’t have clear laws outlining Garda powers of arrest, search and detention. The Gardaí don’t publish clear policies, either. So we don’t know exactly what they will or won’t do in certain circumstances, like at protests.
We don’t know how often they use force, or what kind, or against who. None of these statistics are published. We also don’t know who within An Garda Síochána has been trained in a human-rights-based approach.
What we do know is that over the last 20 years, well-documented scandals have exposed clear flaws within An Garda Síochána. The Morris Tribunal revealed significant corruption. Investigations into the treatment of whistleblower Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe revealed cover-ups and smear campaigns. Problems with public-order policing, including the use of force without proper oversight, have endured from the May Day Protests at Phoenix Park in 2004 to the present.
At the North Frederick Street housing occupation in the city centre last November, police turned up in face masks, supporting private security guards wearing balaclavas, and used batons and pepper spray against protesters.
We’ve documented complaints by housing protesters in Dublin that, after being arrested, they were strip-searched in Garda stations.
Problems like these arise when policing culture does not put respect for the dignity of the individual – the guiding light of human rights – at the centre of all operations.
In September 2018 – a little more than a year since they were appointed – experts on the Commission on the Future of Policing said there was an urgent need for comprehensive structural, management, oversight and legal reforms to An Garda Síochána.
The commission outlined 10 principles to drive reforms: human rights are the foundation and purpose of policing; policing and national security are not the responsibility of the police alone; accountability and oversight structures should be clear and effective; internal governance must be strong and efficient; and police duties should clearly defined and resources deployed accordingly.
An Garda Síochána should be structured and managed to support front-line policing; the people of An Garda Síochána are its greatest resource; policing must be information-led; policing should be seen as a profession; and policing must be adaptive, innovative and cost-effective.
There were 50 recommendations given, too, to make that happen. They emphasised human rights, efficient management, gathering and publishing data, and effective oversight.
Will this process differ from previous attempts at bringing change? The government and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, formerly deputy commissioner of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, have publicly committed to the reforms – and to a timeline for implementation.
The Department of Justice has said it’ll be done over four years. There’ll be a High-Level Steering Board, an Implementation Group, and an Implementation Office located in the Department of the Taoiseach, it said.
The commission emphasises human rights as the starting point for reforms. All members of the Gardaí must receive training in human rights at the beginning of and throughout their career. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and other oversight bodies should have human-rights training available to them.
An overarching human-rights strategy should be devised by a new human-rights unit. A new oversight body should be created, which will streamline what the commission called a “confused” policing architecture and absorb existing oversight bodies set up in reaction to crises. The new oversight body will be called the Policing and Community Safety Oversight Commission.
It has also recommended that the government legislate for police powers of arrest, search and detention.
If these recommendations are properly implemented the ordinary Dubliner on the street can be more confident that if they are subject to arrest, search or detention – or if they see or know of someone else being arrested – that the Garda member is properly trained in a human-rights based approach and they will be following clear, publicly accessible legal and policy procedures.
Importantly, if they don’t, there’ll be a new oversight body to complain to and to ensure the member is held responsible for their actions.
What has happened so far? On 4 July, an update was provided to the government on progress on reforms. A human-rights unit has been established within An Garda Síochána and a strategic advisory committee on human rights has been re-established.
A human-rights adviser has been appointed and now sits in the control room for public-order policing operations, we also know. They’re already at work. This person oversaw operations during the anti-Trump protest on O’Connell Street on 6 June.
The government announced on 29 June that it is preparing legislation on police powers, and body cameras, as also recommended by the Commission on the Future of Policing. Body cameras are a big, and potentially thorny, development given the repercussions for the right to privacy.
Will you know, walking down Pearse Street, what Garda member might be filming you as you pass them by? Or if you join a protest at the Garden of Remembrance, will Gardaí be filming your every move? It will be vital that the government and An Garda Síochána take a strong human-rights-based approach to their use.
Meaningful human-rights reforms need to be sustained, and embedded, root and branch, across the force to work. So far, moves to roll out reforms seem to be on track.
The devil, though, will be in the detail.