TAKING NOTES Garda Commissioner Drew Harris at a Mayo Joint Policing Committee meeting in 2019 where elected representatives were critical of the new policing model which has now come into full effect. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
The new policing model has received a mixed welcome
AS OF Sunday (September 18), a new policing strategy piloted in Mayo since 2019 came into full effect.
The new model, which is currently being rolled out across the country, has drawn criticism from public representatives since the pilot scheme was launched.
Chief among their concerns is the amalgamation of the Mayo district with the existing Roscommon/Longford district to create a new district that is 215 kilometres long and 210 kilometres wide.
Mayo alone was once under the command of one chief superintendent - now a chief superintendent will be responsible for all of Mayo, Roscommon and Longford.
Mayo TD Dara Calleary posed a relevant question when Garda Commissioner Drew Harris addressed local representatives at a Mayo Joint Policing Committee meeting in late 2019.
“Going back to that distance, 215km in length, 210km wide, do you honestly think one on duty inspector is actually going to be able to manage that model in terms of three counties, one with a very large Atlantic coastline?”
Likewise, the number of superintendents in the county will be reduced from four to two, one each to oversee the northern and southern half of the county. An extra superintendent based in Castlebar, assisted by Detective Inspector Denis Harrington, will be in charge of serious crime.
“The superintendents’ job will be to engage with the community engagement issues at a local level. We have been given extra inspectors, and one for each of those community-engagement areas to assist the superintendents,” Chief Superintendent Ray McMahon explained at a recent meeting of the Mayo Joint Policing Committee.
GARDA top brass say the changes are part of reforms to move An Garda Síochána away from geographically-based divisions to functional based units with community policing at its core.
For instance, serious crime in Mayo is currently being dealt with by a dedicated unit overseen by Detective Superintendent Joe McKenna.
Likewise, cases of rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse and child protection are dealt with by the Castlebar-based Mayo Divisional Protective Services Unit (DPSU), which has two detective sergeants, eight detective gardaí and covers the whole county.
The Commission on The Future of Policing in Ireland argue that units like these will ensure that frontline Gardaí are not ‘taken away from front line community policing to work on a major investigation.’
The commission’s report, which formed the basis of the nation-wide reform of the policing structures in Ireland, made a total of 50 recommendations.
One of those was the need for less divisions and regional offices within the force.
“Divisional level assets, administration offices and specialist units, should be seen as supporting the work of the front line,” the commission states, who argued for greater number of middle-ranking gardaí to oversee these new structures.
In the introduction to its report, the commission identified the following flaws with the geographically-based organisational structure which has been in place since the foundation of the state.
These were “highly inefficient deployment of resources across District boundaries; widespread inconsistencies between Districts in the provision of services; duplicate operational, administrative and management units that take resources from patrol, investigative and community policing; and the very wide portfolio of responsibilities assigned to the District officer.”
Speaking at a meeting of the Mayo Joint Policing Committee (JPC) in 2019, now-retired Superintendent Joe Doherty positively described the new model as ‘ideal for urban centres like Castlebar, Ballina, Westport and Claremorris’.
“Two sergeants and ten gardaí were put into the community policing unit in Mayo earlier this year. In Ballina we have one sergeant and three gardaí and one garda in Belmullet.
“Community policing has changed the face of policing in Ballina. It has been hugely positive in dealing with abroad range of people in the town,” he said.
“We will deliver a community-based policing service based on local needs and we want to enhance national and regional supports,” Garda Commissioner Drew Harris told the same meeting.
DESPITE public reassurances from top garda figures, there is significant concern among local representatives about the new policing model.
Westport-based Cllr Christy Hyland, a retired garda himself, has been a consistent critic of the model, which he has branded ‘a disaster’.
Earlier this year, Cllr Hyland said that current model often meant that there could be just two guards and one patrol car on duty in Westport expected to cover everywhere from Achill and Leenane.
Weeks later, Cllr Hyland told this newspaper that that Gardaí are regularly summoned from Westport to attend calls in Castlebar.
Two recent high-profile incidents which occurred within a mile of the county town raised serious questions about Garda staffing levels.
The first was the case of a businessman who had to chase burglars out of his premises himself as there were no Gardaí available to attend.
The other incident involved a road collision just outside the town which took Gardaí from Claremorris an hour to attend.
Garda Ronan O’Grady, who is the Mayo representative for the Garda Representative Association (GRA), says that the new model will not work unless staffing levels were increased.
AS of July 31 2022, Mayo was served by 248 gardaí, 59 sergeants, seven inspectors and four superintendents. The county is headed by one Chief Superintendent, who will also take charge of Roscommon and Longford.
While total Garda numbers have never been higher, Garda O’Grady says that the numbers on the ‘front line’ are at their lowest in years.
“If the resources aren’t put into it, it won’t work. If they are thinking that guards will be going from Achill and Westport to Claremorris and Ballindine, that’s not going to work,” he says.
While much has been made of the role of specialised units in dealing with serious crime, one Garda source told The Mayo News that staff have been recruited from front line roles to fill these positions.
A shortage of new recruits, increased numbers leaving the force at an early age, and large numbers taking annual leave have all contributed to staffing shortages in recent times.
As well as elected representatives, there is believed to be considerable disquiet within An Garda Síochána about the new policing model.
“You’ll talk to any guard on the ground, they’ll tell you it’s not working,” said one Garda source.
Renowned crime reporter Paul Williams believes that many of the current changes will eventually be undone in years to come.
“A lot of older cops and younger cops are saying that this will all have to be undone in years to come. They also believe this is going to be completely counterproductive,” Williams told The Mayo News.
“It’s already counterproductive, if you are reducing the number of supervisory officers, that can’t be right.”
The new policing strategy is modelled off the structure used in the United Kingdom, which allocates resources based on function rather than geography.
Williams says that such a model of policing is inappropriate for a sparsely populated country like Ireland.
“The rate of success in British police is a mere 7 percent. We’re going to have a hybrid of the PSNI and the British police. What they’ve done here is they’ve taken one of the most successful police forces in the world and have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”
JOHNNY Carey, a former Chief Superintendent for the Mayo district, said he was ‘skeptical’ about whether the new model would be appropriate for policing rural Ireland.
He cites Erris as an example, an area that is as big as county Louth but quite sparsely populated by comparison.
“At the same time, it cannot be pure geography either,” Carey told The Mayo News.
“If you are looking at the prevention of crime, you have to have a certain amount of visibility. Guards cannot be everywhere but how are you going to provide that presence that deters crime?”
While acknowledging that the new model could save the force time and money, he believes that it may be more applicable to an urban area – as alluded to earlier by Superintendent Joe Doherty.
“We’re living in a new era to facilitate remote management. There will be financial savings.
Whether it improves the product at ground level, I’m not so sure,” Carey says.
“You can apply these things more to cities and large towns, the DMR and the DMA in Dublin.
It’s different policing. In remote areas you have to have a different consideration. It would cost more per acre down in North Mayo.”