It took only two weeks for Grace Ogunsanya to notice how heavy the Garda presence was in her new neighbourhood, she says.
She moved to Blanchardstown from Finglas at the start of April. “Definitely seen a lot more guards around in Blanchardstown,” said Ogunsanya last week.
Last Thursday, Ogunsanya saw the guards body-search a man.
She didn’t catch a glimpse of his face to know if he was Black but as a Black family, she says, they are concerned.
Heavier Garda presence and witnessing regular stop-and-searches make her feel “uncomfortable”, says Ogunsanya. “Because of the racial category I belong to.”
Police presence is necessary if “something dangerous is going on”, she says, but needless “stop-and-search or hovering around” is unnerving.
Garda patrols on the ground in all areas, including Blanchardstown, have increased due to the pandemic, says a spokesperson for An Garda Síochána.
“These increased patrols have had the benefit of providing additional high visibility patrols and support to the more vulnerable members of society,” they said.
But when Garda increase their patrols in diverse communities like Blanchardstown and Balbriggan, do their large ethnic-minority and immigrant populations get stopped and searched more often than White Irish people? And, if so, what are the consequences?
The spokesperson for An Garda Síochána didn’t respond to a query asking if incidents of stop-and-search have also increased with the increase in patrols, or whether figures on this were available.
On 7 April, a stop-and-search episode in the area led to the arrest of a 16-year-old Black boy and prompted a physical altercation between the Gardaí and Blessing Nkencho, the mother of George Nkencho.
A spokesperson for the Gardaí declined to confirm the veracity of a video recording apparently showing the incident, but recognised the arrest.
“The male juvenile was taken to Blanchardstown Garda Station, he has since been released for consideration of inclusion in the Juvenile Diversion Programme,” the spokesperson said on 8 April.
Ogunsanya’s oldest child is eight years old. Most days when she is taking him to school they pass by Garda patrols, even though their journey is not longer than “three or four kilometres”, she says.
As a mother bringing up three kids in Blanchardstown, Ogunsanya worries that once they’re old enough to wander around the neighbourhood on their own they will face racial profiling and stop-and-searches, she says.
“If I say I’m concerned, that’s an understatement. I am more than concerned, honestly, I am, my husband is … ,” she says and then pauses to find the right word as her four-month-old baby cries in the background.
“I don’t know what word to use, you know, but he is very very worried,” says Ogunsanya.
To console him, Ogunsanya tells her husband that they’re going to “educate” the kids about racial profiling and ways to deal with the Gardaí to avoid trouble once they’re older, she says.
A growing body of American research points to the harmful impact of stop-and-search on minority youth. The upshot is that those kids struggle more in school, experience anxiety and depression, and nurse “cynicism” toward law-enforcement agencies.
Young, Loud and Black in Balbriggan
Blanchardstown is not the only diverse part of Dublin where non-White locals fear racial profiling or groundless stop-and-searches.
Seroosh Salimi lives in Balbriggan, which had 21,601 residents, including 2,371 “Black or Black Irish” people, 610 “Asian or Asian Irish” people, and 179 White Irish Travellers in 2016, according to the CSO.
Salimi is used to being routinely stopped and questioned by the guards there, he says.
They always have to let him go, says Salimi. “Because there was no reason. If it was once or twice, I wouldn’t even talk about it.”
He thinks they target him because “maybe someone from another ethnic background or same as myself have done things that they shouldn’t, and now they look at me and unconsciously presuming he’s doing the same”.
Salimi is not alone, he says. “There is a lot of racial profiling going on here, we have a lot of immigrant kids in Balbriggan, and they’re not gangsters; they’re just loud.”
Young and loud groups of “Black and Brown” kids, he says, attract the attention of the Gardaí, prompting stop-and-searches.
It often leads to unpleasant interactions between those kids and the guards, says Salimi, and because they’re adolescents with personalities still up for grabs, they grow up distrustful and resentful of the police.
Says Salimi: “That trust is broken in Balbriggan.”
Lucy Michael, a sociologist who is currently investigating “police culture” in the western areas of Dublin, says that needless stop-and-search inflames diverse neighbourhoods against the police.
“It has severely and probably permanently damaged trust in the Gardaí as an organisation amongst the people I have spoken to who have experienced stop-and-search, and many of them have also experienced police brutality,” Michael says.
In 2018 Michael and Shane O’Curry, the director of the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR), co-authored a report on the future of policing in Ireland.
Racial profiling, “hostile interactions with ethnic minority public, including racial profiling, harassment and unwarranted searches”, and “investigation of immigration status” before investigating a reported crime, are listed in the report as police malpractices requiring change.
“That report still stands today,” O’Curry said.
Does Training Help?
Whether diversity training could help tackle racial profiling in stop-and-searches is a point of debate.
Diversity training is available to Garda Diversity Officers (GDOs) but it’s not “a Continuous Professional Development, it’s not a CPD course”, says Michael, the sociologist.
A spokesperson for the Gardaí said “A full review of Diversity Training was carried out in 2020, followed by the development of a new Hate Crime / Diversity and Cultural Awareness Online Training Programme” for GDOs.
The role of GDOs is to foster a positive link between the police and ethnic minority public, implement integration policies and help solve cases of hate crime, they said.
But they are limited in number (281 nationally), influence and resources, says Michael.
Blanchardstown Garda station has one diversity officer, and Balbriggan station has four, one sergeant and three gardaí.
But Michael, the sociologist studying police culture, says a lack of funding and authority undermines their role.
“The diversity unit has no authority over cases,” she says Michael. “For example, if I report a case of hate crime against you, the diversity unit can’t contribute to the investigation, they can only offer help, but the investigating guard decides whether to take that help or not.”
A spokesperson for the Gardaí declined to comment on this. “An Garda Síochána does not comment on third party remarks,” they said.
The Gardaí aims to eventually make diversity and anti-racism training mandatory for “all Garda personnel”, the spokesperson said.
How much help that would be, though, is unclear. American researchers recently studied the impact of “implicit bias awareness training” on the behaviour of officers working for the New York Police Department.
They found that although training expands the knowledge of police officers about unconscious prejudice, it barely changes what they do on the job.
“The effects of the training on officers’ attitudes toward discrimination, and their motivation to act without prejudice, were fairly small,” the study says.
Training should be complemented by other organisational forces, like stronger supervision of the officers, says the study.
An Garda Síochána’s current Diversity and Integration Strategy does not mention any supervisory measures to prevent racial profiling. However, it does mention supervision for the investigation of hate crimes.
A recent report on the usefulness of body cameras worn by officers at the New York Police Department found that they’re a “powerful tool” against stop-and-search abuse.
Conscious that an “extra set of eyes” was watching their every move, officers were more inclined to accurately document their day-to-day pedestrian stops, says the report.
Requiring officers to wear body cameras to record their interactions with the public was a recommendation made by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in September 2018.
It would “act as a deterrent and protect members from assault, by a small sector of society”, it says. Body cams can also help hold the Gardaí into account, says the document.
In January in the Dáil, Justice Minister Helen McEntee said that “deployment of body worn cameras by An Garda Síochána” will be provided in the upcoming Digital Recording Bill, which is “well progressed within my Department”.
Michael, the sociologist, says body cams can help, but “not without an explicit prohibition of racial profiling and reform of practices which produce racial profiling”.
Representing the Community
Salimi, the Balbriggan local, has a father who speaks little English. He thinks if more officers had a Middle Eastern background like his dad, he or others like him could connect better with them.
“As of June 2020, 20 different nationalities from countries other than the UK and Ireland” work for the Gardaí, says the Department of Justice’s website.
In 2017, only one in 240 Garda had an ethnic-minority background though, which translates to 0.4 per cent of the force, data compiled by the Garda Representative Association (GRA) shows.
The country is far more diverse than the Gardaí: nearly 18 percent of the country had an ethnic or cultural background other than “White Irish” in 2016, according to the CSO.
“Recruitment to An Garda Síochána from the Black or Asian Minority Ethnic (‘BAME’) community is conspicuous by its absence – albeit there are a few exceptions,” says the GRA report.
Police officers are also on the list of professions ineligible for a work permit issued by the Department of Trade and Employment. That means people from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) can’t join the force without having a permanent immigration status already.
“If you had a police officer from the Middle East who would understand my dad’s culture and institution, they would immediately understand each other,” Salimi says.