Rank and file gardaí are seeking “urgent” meetings with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Simon Harris to press them to establish a taskforce to examine the issue of violent attacks on members of the force, and also falling Garda numbers.
The Garda Representative Association (GRA), which represents about 12,000 gardaí in a 14,100-strong force, last night contacted Mr Varadkar and Mr Harris, as well as Tánaiste Micheál Martin, who last weekend said the mooted taskforce could be considered by the Government.
The move to seek talks with the senior Government figures followed a specially convened meeting yesterday of the GRA’s executive committee. It discussed the risks to Garda members’ safety due to violence on the streets and the increased pressure of work they were enduring due to falling numbers were discussed.
Last year, assaults in public places increased by almost one third and the volume of assaults is now almost 10 per cent higher than levels witnessed before the pandemic. There are about 1,000 assaults on gardaí annually and almost 300 members of the force suffered injuries during those attacks.
“An Garda Síochána today faces an unprecedented challenge with rising assaults on our members, failures within both the recruitment process and the retention of gardaí contributing to a situation of low morale among those we represent,” said GRA interim general secretary Philip McAnenly.
“We have outlined all these issues with our colleagues in government and have requested these meetings as a matter of extreme urgency,” he added of contacting Mr Varadkar, Mr Martin and Mr Harris.
While the GRA and the three other Garda staff representative bodies met with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris on Monday, at their request, sources said the GRA was now determined to secure a taskforce to examine issues facing members of the force.
Mr Harris has conceded plans to increase the Garda to 15,000 members, a long-promised target, would now take until the end of 2024. Due to the rate of retirements expected, and some resignations, around 2,000 new recruits would need to be taken into the Garda College, Templemore, Co Tipperary, in the next two years if the force was to expand by approximately 850, to the targeted 15,000 members.
Mr Harris added the population was growing at the same time as policing became more complex, with a need for more specialist levels of investigative expertise to solve sexual crimes, for example. These factors were conspiring to increase the pressure on policing services. There had also been spikes in Garda recruitment 30 to 40 years ago, meaning there would now be some spikes in the number of gardaí retiring in coming years.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1′s News at One, Mr Harris said attacks on gardaí were a matter of “great concern” and trying to mitigate that risk was “one of the heaviest burdens” for him in his role as head of the force.
He planned a review of equipment on issue to Garda members to determine if it was the “most modern and up to date” available and he believed “improvements” could be made by providing better equipment. However, legislation was also required to more stringently tackle those using vehicles to ram Garda cars.
He also believed the use of facial recognition technology in body-worm cameras being sought by gardaí was “a protection for people”. The faces of innocent bystanders would be “pixelated out” of recordings used to aid criminal investigations or as evidence for prosecutions.
He believed the pixelating of the faces of people in the background of videos recorded on public streets would safeguard the general public’s right to privacy and would also help to protect the identities of witnesses in some cases.
“There’s a lot to be said for using the most up-to-date methods and we are only asking for what is the European standard,” he said of the body-worn cameras with facial recognition technology. “These cameras have been in use for approximately 10 years we’re one of the very few countries that is without body-worn cameras.”
Mr Harris said the cameras were a vital tool in gathering evidence when crimes were first reported to gardaí and when members of the force arrived at difficult and dangerous scenes, including locations where domestic attacks or sexual assaults were alleged to have taken place. He said while the storing of footage to the standard required by the criminal justice system involved “complexities”, he hoped to have a bodycam pilot project rolled out by year end once legislation before the Oireachtas was enacted.