The Small Areas Policing programme in north inner-city Dublin has been an award winning success. Ciarán Galway visits Store Street Garda Station to speak with Chief Superintendent Pat Leahy.
Community policing is an ambiguous and fluid concept. Often the term is used without a clear grasp of the intricacies of the system. The Small Areas Policing (SAP) initiative is a customer-orientated approach to policing. A core component underpinning the strategy is the identification of local inhabitants as customers with specific needs. The strategy holds that, through continuous engagement and analysis of customer needs, it becomes possible to purposefully manage relationships to the benefit of the relevant communities.
Between 2008 and 2015 An Garda Síochána introduced a five phase approach to implementing such a strategy in an area of Dublin which has long been afflicted by flares of criminality. Conversely, this phasing-in period, which coincided with the implementation of Government austerity measures, actually ushered in a relative purple patch for policing in the north inner-city. That was true, at least, until the stability was punctured by a series of fatal gang-related shootings which materialised during early 2016.
Chief Superintendent Pat Leahy, the senior garda officer in charge of the North Central Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Area outlines: “There’s huge diversity in the north inner-city. When people refer to the north inner-city they often think of deprivation and small residential areas with significant social problems, and while there is that aspect of it, it doesn’t represent the north inner-city as a whole.”
The Dublin Metropolitan Region – North Central Division, comprising the Store Street, Fitzgibbon Street and Bridewell Districts, represents a considerable portion of the city. The Division, delineated by the Liffey on its southern boundary, spans from the Criminal Courts of Justice in the west to Dublin Port in the east and, at its most northerly point, extends to the Tolka Valley Park and Glasnevin Cemetery. Significant infrastructure within the Division includes Dublin’s main thoroughfare of O’Connell Street, Croke Park, the 3Arena, the IFSC, Busaras, Connolly Station, the Port Tunnel, as well as several courts, prisons, hospitals and shopping centres. In the central Dublin business area (encompassing the area between Parnell Square and Grafton Street) average weekly football is as high as 3,000,000 people. Evidently it is a hugely diverse locality with disparate levels of affluence and socio-economic disadvantage.
The bottom-up SAP strategy encompasses a proactive geographic segmentation of the north inner-city alongside an enhanced Garda presence. The strategy targets previously neglected quality of life issues as well as crime and relies heavily on the accumulation and granular analysis of related data. The 121 community Gardaí currently on the ground are each assigned ‘ownership’ of a particular Small Area of Policing (SAPs) and encouraged to regard themselves as an integral part of the associated community in which they work.
In order to implement a data-driven initiative like SAP, Gardaí conducted 15,000 interviews within 20,000 homes in the Division and used Central Statistics Office maps and figures to establish the geographical boundaries of the small areas. These interviews comprised the completion of a questionnaire relating to the individual needs of each household. Each questionnaire posed a series of 16 questions ranging from perceptions of the area itself to how the Garda service in the area could be improved. Simultaneously, it also presented an opportunity for individual community gardaí to introduce themselves.
In an area encompassing communities within which An Garda Síochána relations had often been strained, Leahy indicates that significant progress has been made. “We’ve made huge strides in relation to that. I would suggest that the relationship between the guards and the communities around here has changed. It’s like black and white, day or night. It is totally different to what it would have been many years ago. But this is not just as a result of what we did, this is a team effort involving many years of hard work on behalf of partners such as Dublin City Council, the Community Policing Forum, our very committed local councillors, Dublin Town and many dedicated community activists and groups. For our part, we called to 20,000 homes, we ate dinner with them, we drank tea with them, we had conversations with them, they’re now hooked up to us with emails and mobile phones and I could go through a myriad of what would appear to be non-police related issues that the guards have dealt with over this period. It’s all about trying to raise the profile of the area in a sort of holistic approach. If they’re coming to the guards, we’ll take their issue on and then move it on to the agency that can actually provide for it.”
However, the unique nature of policing the Division poses challenges requiring a bespoke set of solutions. “We had over 300 events associated with 2016 in the first half of the year. We have major events all the time. We have a strong relationship with people who are trying to develop the city, both on the residential side and the business side. We keep a very open mind regarding attracting events into the city centre, but unfortunately the more events that we attract, the more of a resource we have to put in, and we don’t always get full cost recovery. We have also had significant protests over the last few years, for example the water protests, and the resource implications are obviously there.”
Leahy accepts: “There are challenges, but I wouldn’t say that it is an area of high criminality. For example, we have the lowest burglary rate in the city.” However, he acknowledges: “There are parts of the north inner-city where there are significant challenges. There is no doubt about it. It has come to the fore since February  when the feud was unloaded onto the communities of the north inner-city. That has had a significant effect on feelings of safety within particular areas.”
Leahy emphasises the intensely local nature of the violence and the subsequent potential for residual animosity. “We’re trying to work on that at the moment and we are rolling out restorative practice programmes. We’ve trained a lot of people here in the local community. We are working with the National College of Ireland and other key stakeholders to try and bring about some healing to the communities.”
Simultaneously, Operation Hybrid was launched in response to this surge in gang violence in the Dublin Metropolitan Area. Leahy contends: “Hybrid was essential. It has been very effective and we have stopped several attempts on behalf of feuding parties to reengage with one side or another. We would say confidently that we have saved lives over that period as a result of Hybrid and the support that we’ve received from the various different armed units. Again there is a resource implication associated with Hybrid, but there is also an implication for people on the ground. That cannot become normal policing. Not here, not anywhere in Ireland. I don’t want people to get used to it, but it is essential at the moment and has been since earlier on this year.”
Alluding to criminal elements manoeuvring to try and circumvent Criminal Assets Bureau structures, Leahy describes a reallocation of State resources as an essential response to such major issues which arise about once a decade. “This is a move into a new space. You will find that, like everyone before them, these organised crime structures will be dismantled. They will rue the day that they took on the legitimacy of the State to use force within its own borders. You will see it starting here on the ground.”
Curtailing gang violence has, to some degree, inevitably detracted from the overarching initiative in the north inner-city. “There has been some disruption to [SAP] in terms of having to pull [community gardaí] away occasionally, to do duty on Operation Hybrid or to do duty on the beats that we have in key locations. I absolutely want to get back to where there is no abstraction from their community policing duties. Coming out of the recent round of accountability reviews, I can say that our guards are still locked in and doing what it is they’re required to do, but they will tell you that they’d like to be spending all their time within their small area. I don’t have a timeframe on that because my main priority at the moment has to be preservation of life.”
Drugs remain a significant concern for many residents of the north inner-city. Leahy recognises: “There are a lot of drugs being sold around here, there’s no doubt about it. The most visual are the prescription drugs and we have found over time that the legislation was not developed or designed to deal with them being sold on such a small scale. Therefore, it’s been very difficult to work with it and address the problem. We’ve gone from less than 4,000 searches of individuals in 2008 when we had full resources and austerity hadn’t hit us, to 16,000 at the end of 2015 when we had approximately 130 less gardaí. A huge jump in activity in terms of searches by the police.” Though he concedes: “You have to be careful in that respect as well. You could very easily get into the area of oppressive policing or stereotyping.”
Leahy is assertive in his assessment: “Police action never cures drug addiction. That’s the reality of it. It doesn’t matter how many people we arrest. If they’re addicted to drugs they’re not going to give it up as a result of being arrested or searched.”
However, he outlines: “In that context, we have had a relationship with the Ana Liffey Drug Project and Dublin City Council and we have been operating an outreach service with those agencies in terms of trying to identify those hard to reach people who are addicted to drugs. There are gaps in their service provision and we’ve been working very closely with them in terms of trying to link them up with proper services. If there’s some way that we can bring a policing approach that makes it easier for [addicts] to take up some sort of treatment, then we do that. There are success stories coming out, but we’re not foolish to think that it’s anything but an uphill battle.”
While conceding that morale has been an issue facing An Garda Síochána, Leahy maintains that these issues are not specifically related to the north inner-city. “The guards in the Division reported to an external agency that there has been a culture change in relation to the SAP initiative and that they wouldn’t go back to the way that things had been beforehand. They reported that they feel more valued doing this because they own it, they’re responsible for it, they’re accountable for it, they’re allowed to introduce changes themselves. But we can’t get away from the fact that their salaries have been cut. It has been a really challenging time for the members of An Garda Síochána; they’ve had significant cuts. However, despite morale issues, they kept their shoulders firmly to the wheel around here, we just can’t fault them in any way.”
Leahy is quick to emphasise the hard work of rank and file Gardaí within his Division. “We haven’t stopped community policing, they’re still out there and we will be back in four weeks’ time having our next round of performance reviews. Our guards are still engaging at that level. The awards handed out to the guards around here were just indicators, but that wasn’t the endgame for us. We’ll get to a place here where community policing will be the undisputed foundation of policing.”
Looking to the future, Leahy radiates optimism. “There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind. I think once we come out the far end of this feud people are going to stop and say, ‘you know what, there is a new dawn here and it looks better now than it did before’. I am absolutely confident. We’re coming through this at the moment and we’re coming through it collectively. It’s not us against them, it’s for the community and there’s a real sense that we’re all in this together. That is testament to what has happened over the previous number of years and the commitment of the police, the community and all of our key stakeholders working together.
“We will dismantle this group. They’ve signed their own demise in terms of what they decided to do. They wouldn’t be the first ones to do that, but I think we’ll come out of this stronger as a community in the north inner-city, as a police service and I think generally as a public service we’ll get on to a new plain.”
Overall, Leahy is forthright in his outlook that the north inner-city of Dublin is a good place to work as a Garda. “A place can get a bad name very quickly and it’s very hard to reverse that, but certainly I wouldn’t be staying here as long as I have if I didn’t like policing here. There’s an honesty about it. Yes, the stakes have risen considerably since February, but we’re dealing with that and I’m confident that we will succeed. It certainly is our main aim to bring it back to normal policing.”
Profile: Pat Leahy
Cork-born Pat Leahy has had an illustrious career. First joining An Garda Síochána in 1982, he transferred from Ennis to Dublin and spent an initial number of years working with the Detective Unit in Donnybrook from where he was promoted to sergeant. After a short stint in Wicklow, Leahy began a series of excursions with the United Nations. These deployments, averaging around a year each, encompassed Namibia, Cambodia and Bosnia. He has also worked on policing issues in Lebanon, Malawi and Uganda.
Specific career highlights include taking charge as policing commander of the Ilidza district in Sarajevo and producing a report for then Secretary General Kofi Anan in an examination into the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. During the interludes, Leahy returned to Donnybrook before transferring to Pearse Street where he was promoted to Inspector and subsequently Superintendent before reassigning to Castlebar. On his return to Dublin from Mayo, Leahy took charge of the Garda Operational Support unit operating out of Harcourt Square before rising to Chief Superintendent and moving to the Garda Professional Standards Unit. Then, in 2008, Leahy came to Store Street. He is currently completing a PhD.