Major facets of society experienced rapid change at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic and policing was no different, writes Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.
In common with all other public agencies, An Garda Síochána and our personnel quickly reacted to the emergence of this deadly virus. Our primary task was to provide re-assurance to the public and ensure compliance with the public health guidelines.
In doing so, we built on our tradition of policing by consent by adopting a graduated response. The four Es approach which saw Gardaí engage, educate, encourage and, as a last resort, enforce has been at the core of our ability to urge compliance with emergency regulations. Among our most meaningful work, particularly during intense periods of lockdown, has been supporting those who are vulnerable, high risk and isolated.
Fulfilling everyday, but essential, tasks for people who were medically vulnerable or cocooning like getting groceries and collecting prescriptions reaffirmed our connection with communities across the country. This impact of this work such as local Gardaí stopping by for a socially distanced chat and checking in with people cannot be underestimated and has strengthened our already close connection with communities.
We also knew that restrictions on movement would, unfortunately, lead to an increase in domestic abuse. To combat this, in April 2020, we introduced Operation Faoiseamh, which focused on providing enhanced proactive support and protection to victims of domestic abuse. Operation Faoiseamh and the ongoing work of the Garda Protective Services Bureau saw over 7,000 criminal charges preferred for crimes involving an element of domestic abuse in 2020.
The organisation and its personnel rapidly mobilised in a wide range of additional ways to deal with the pandemic. Gardaí were re-deployed to frontline duties and the attestation of trainee Gardaí was fast tracked to help bolster our community engagement. Over 200 additional community support vehicles were also acquired to maximise this effort.
A large scale, high visibility operation, Operation Fanacht, was introduced to ensure compliance with restrictions on movement. Other operations such as the checking of licensed and retail premises were brought in as public health regulations evolved. Additional measures included the establishment of a National Covid Co-Ordination Centre, the introduction of an emergency roster that increased our policing hours by 25 per cent, millions of pieces of PPE were acquired to protect the front-line, thousands of devices deployed to enable home working, and daily internal communications were distributed via an e-zine to keep all personnel informed of the latest health and operational guidance.
The extensive duties and responsibilities, and the broad range of criminal activity during a global public health crisis have been a challenge, but Garda personnel once again acted with absolute determination to protect the State and its people.
This is best reflected in the fact that members of An Garda Síochána embraced a series of very challenging emergency policing measures that undoubtedly took a physical and mental toll. All too regularly during these 18 months, Gardaí have faced immediate danger and a risk to their safety during incidents of public order and violent protest. They have suffered injury at the hands of a minority, and yet still they have returned to their duties without a moment’s hesitation.
“The extensive duties and responsibilities, and the broad range of criminal activity during a global public health crisis have been a challenge, but Garda personnel once again acted with absolute determination to protect the State and its people.”
That is why it has proven vital that our organisation do all it can to promote the physical and mental wellbeing of all personnel. A range of accessible, independent, and confidential resources have been developed to encourage us all to reach out during times we may feel under pressure or stressed.
Despite widespread international restrictions, the illegal drug trade did not dwindle during the pandemic. An Garda Síochána continued to carry out extensive search and arrest operations targeting the assets and activities of organised criminal groups resulting in considerable seizures of drugs, firearms, and cash.
There are now 321 Gardaí assigned full time to Divisional Drug Units across every Garda Division nationwide, and each one of these units complement our enhanced national anti-drugs strategy, Operation Tara, which commenced in July 2021 with a particular focus on street-level dealing that can blight communities.
In addition, as of this year, there is now a Divisional Protective Services Unit (DPSU) in operation within every Garda division to prevent and detect domestic abuse, sexual crime, human trafficking, and child abuse. Over 300 Garda personnel are assigned to DPSUs having undergone specialised training.
In the midst of the public health crisis also, the ransomware attack on the Health Service Executive sadly wreaked havoc on vital services. The collateral impact and the disruption caused to our society is an insight into the callousness of organised crime. The Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau continue to work with national and international counterparts as part of our investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. In tandem with all of this, some very important developments have also been progressing within our organisation as part of the Government’s reform plan, A Policing Service for Our Future.
The rollout of the new Garda Operating Model has continued throughout the past 18 months and is already helping to modernise An Garda Síochána at divisional level. This is the biggest structural change to the organisation since its founding in 1922. The Operating Model will see an increase in front-line Gardaí, a more localised service to communities based on their needs, and the provision of greater specialised police services at local level.
Motorists will have noticed Gardaí’s use of the Active Mobility App introduced during the 2020/2021 period. This new technology has transformed roads policing by allowing Gardaí to scan car number plates for relevant data by using a mobile device. Over 170,000 fixed charge notices have been issued using these devices to date. With 5,000 of these devices already in use, we expect 10,000 Garda personnel to be equipped with this technology by the end of this year.
In early June, the Garda National Anti-Corruption Unit was launched and its activities to promote the highest standards of honesty, integrity and professionalism within the organisation are underway.
Human rights are paramount in policing and must be central to everything we do. That is why we have further embedded our Code of Ethics during the past 18 months, introduced a Human Rights Unit, increased human rights training, and re-instituted our human rights advisory council. I expect all Garda personnel to ensure the equitable and fair treatment of every single person that engages with An Garda Síochána.
It is in this spirit of evolution that we look ahead to honouring the centenary year of An Garda Síochána next year. Our organisation is steadily strengthening its capabilities to be more far-reaching and all-encompassing than ever before. The number of Gardaí working in communities nationwide is now at its highest ever, and their work is well supported by almost 3,000 equally dedicated staff.
And so, as we move closer towards a post-pandemic era, our whole organisation remains as focused on the very mission that those in the century before had: keeping people safe.
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