THE HEAD OF the Policing Authority told Noteworthy that the oversight body was “not satisfied” with comments made by the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in relation to the findings of a recent research report on Traveller experiences in the justice system.
The Irish Travellers’ Access to Justice (ITAJ) report, which was the result of research carried out at the University of Limerick, made a number of damning findings about the interactions Travellers have with gardaí, including that ethnic profiling is taking place.
Following the publication of the report, Commissioner Harris, while acknowledging he was “very concerned” about the content of the report, told the Policing Authority that he does not believe profiling is taking place in An Garda Síochána.
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“I don’t believe we do undertake racial profiling,” he told members of the Policing Authority over the summer (livestreamed in video below).
“I’m not in a position to accept that’s an allegation for An Garda Síochána. I have to say this is a finding made without recourse to us to have a response to it and this is the place we’re in at the moment.”
He said An Garda Síochána had not been given an opportunity to respond to the allegations prior to the publication of the report and that the organisation would have to do its own inquiry before accepting that finding.
“Racial profiling is a very serious allegation to level against An Garda Síochána and before I would accept that I would want to be certain on the reasons why I was accepting that allegation.”
In an interview with Noteworthy, Helen Hall, chief executive of the Policing Authority, said members were “not satisfied” with the Commissioner’s comments relating to accusations of profiling.
“If you look back at that meeting and the reaction when the Commissioner responded, I don’t think the authority was entirely satisfied with it,” she said.
He seemed to be coming from the perspective that there were allegations in the report that he would have to investigate and until they were investigated they were not to be believed.
Hall said she thought that the Commissioner’s response on the day was “unfortunate” and that the oversight body would “not be leaving this alone”.
“That’s why I believe passionately in the work of an organisation like the Policing Authority, that report will not be forgotten and there will be public oversight of what they are doing to change the situation.”
In response to a query about Hall’s criticism, An Garda Síochána said it “does not comment on remarks by third parties”.
Hall made a comparison between these allegations of ethnic profiling and allegations relating to hate crimes, pointing out that in the definition of hate crime, “the point is that people feel their race or ethnicity was the reason”.
Survey points to ethnic profiling
Similarly, interviewees and those who took part in a survey in the course of this research reported that they believe Travellers are stopped by gardaí more often and that they are subject to more searches than settled people.
In some cases, respondents to the ITAJ survey provided multiple justifications for their assertion of ethnic profiling. Of those respondents who stated that they believed they were stopped because they are a Traveller:
- 78% explained that the garda who stopped them knew that they were a Traveller;
- 53% stated that the particular garda who stopped them has a reputation for stopping Travellers;
- 46% stated that the location of the police stop contributed to their conviction that they were ethnically profiled;
- and 23% stated that the garda who stopped them said something about their Traveller identity or about Travellers generally.
These findings were consistent with what Noteworthy was told by children from the Traveller community last year as part of our award-winning TOUGH START investigation.
Traveller children, aged 12-14, who spoke to Noteworthy reported feeling fear around interactions with gardaí and that they believe gardaí assume they will do something criminal.
When asked what they believe gardaí think about Travellers, three of the children said “bad” at the same time. “They dislike us, I don’t know why,” one of the girls said.
“I think most people expect us to do bad things, or make us out as bad people,” another girl said. “The guards think, if someone robbed something, most likely it’s Travellers,” another told us.
One of the girls said she was with her mother at a shop when two gardaí stopped them and asked them to empty their pockets. She said they apologised after she became upset.
All of the children said they were afraid of gardaí and that they also notice their parents’ anxiety when they see gardaí.
Impossible task without data
Hall acknowledged that proving outright that racial profiling is taking place – or for the Garda Commissioner to prove it is not taking place – is an impossible task without a significant change in data collection on policing interactions in Ireland.
“It’s a big problem – and something that was pointed out right through Covid, not just in relation to Travellers – was the absence of data in Ireland to tell us about the distribution of policing activity, the use of force, intrusive powers and so on,” she said.
“If you look at some of the statistics we do have, Travellers are over-represented in the prison system by a significant amount and in the Probation Service. But what’s happening upstream? Is there something in relation to policing that’s causing them to be in the system further down?”
We need to start to collect more information about who the police are policing and who they’re providing a service to as victims of crime as well. Otherwise we’re depending on reports like the Access to Justice report, which is an important piece of work, but it’s anecdotal information.
Hall said the Policing Authority has “pressed” An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice to begin collecting data on interactions such as ‘stop and search’, which is done in other jurisdictions, to better understand what is needed to improve the policing service.
The ‘last socially acceptable form of racism’
The Policing Authority head also said that discrimination against Travellers is the “last socially acceptable form of racism in Ireland” and rejected the assertion that racist behaviour by individuals within An Garda Síochána is a reflection of the racism in society overall.
“I don’t think that’s good enough,” she said. “They’re public servants and they have a duty to recognise and eliminate racism.”
Just 11% of those surveyed as part of the ITAJ research said they have never been stopped by gardaí prior to the Covid pandemic checkpoints. One fifth of participants said they were stopped by gardaí once a week or more.
Interviewees from Traveller organisations made particular reference to gardaí stopping young people from the community. One response said:
We’re stopped more often and then stopped and searched more often. Yeah, even on the street, the Traveller children. Now I know a guard has the right to ask you, you know, who you are, where you’re coming from, whatever, has certain rights to ask you but the young children are always stopped by the gardaí.
More than half (51%) of those who had been stopped told researchers that they had not been treated respectfully during the interaction.
Bernard Joyce, director of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) told Noteworthy that profiling experienced by the Traveller community can be subtle and therefore not easily tracked or documented.
“The profiling is done in a way that people are stopped, for example, because of their specific location [close to a halting site], or given more attention,” he said. “With particular sites there’s a sense that people leaving and entering are being watched, particularly young males.”
The ITAJ survey also asked Travellers about searches of their homes, vehicles or their person by gardaí. 37% said gardaí did not provide any reason for the search.
The survey revealed that just over half of those who had been present in a home when gardaí entered uninvited said they believed gardaí had come to the wrong home. Just under one third stated that when a warrant was supplied it did not include a detailed address like a bay number or house number.
Joyce said damage can be done by gardaí when they enter a site for a legitimate reason, but treat everyone in the vicinity “like they’re criminals even though they’re not involved”.
“It’s so important that the whole community is not held responsible for the actions of a few individuals,” he said.
“There are situations where they’re going in after one individual, but while they’re there they’ll also go after anything else that they see, checking cars around the place for tax, everyone becomes scrutinised,” he added.
That is racial profiling. That’s holding the whole community accountable for the actions of one person.
Joyce said An Garda Síochána is supposed to be a police force that serves the entire community and “tangible action” is needed to ensure that this also applies to Travellers.
‘Work to be done’
Superintendent Michael Corbett of the Garda Bureau of Community Engagement told Noteworthy that An Garda Síochána acknowledges the findings of the report and that there is “work to be done”.
One immediate response is the development of a number of informative videos, explaining citizens’ rights and the powers of gardaí in relation to stop and search interactions and the use of warrants.
Superintendent Corbett said gardaí have a job to do and are dealing every day with serious criminality, including criminal activities carried out by individuals in the Traveller community.
“There’s no doubt that Travellers are being stopped by members of An Garda Síochána around the country for various different reasons,” he said.
It’s a very subjective matter as regards their view of being stopped and search and what An Garda Síochána will say, which is that we’re doing our job and we have reasons to stop and search somebody, which you have to have. You can’t just stop and search somebody for no reason.
However he acknowledged, as was highlighted in the ITAJ report, that these kinds of interactions may not always be explained by members as well as they could be.
“That’s why we’ve committed to developing those videos in conjunction with the University of Limerick, I spoke to one of my colleagues recently and that process is starting now, so I would expect we’ll see those videos soon and they’ll be going out into the Traveller community as an awareness piece,” he said.
Responding to accusations of over-policing of this particular ethnic group, Superintendent Corbett said “every action An Garda Síochána takes has to be justified”.
“At the end of the day, if we have to go into a campsite for a serious incident, then decisions have to be made,” he said. “It has to be risk-assessed as regards the dangers for both members and the people inside. Our primary function is to keep people safe and the preservation of life and property so we’re duty bound to go in.”
Legislative change needed
Corbett said he recognised the need for the organisation to begin using ethnic identifiers in order to track potential issues such as racial profiling.
“The data is what’s really going to answer that question and once we’re in a position to provide that data it’ll have a lot of value and significance, both for our organisation and external organisations because then we’re getting a true picture of whether it’s a problem,” he said.
It’s difficult in the absence of hard, factual evidence, as opposed to anecdotal [information] and different views on it. The Human Rights Section in An Garda Síochána have highlighted this, there is a need for legislative change in relation to gathering ethnic identifier data and it’s not just An Garda Síochána, other State bodies are in a similar difficulty that in order to get that data, they’ll need the change in legislation.
He said the organisation has raised the need for this change in legislation with the Department of Justice.
In a statement to Noteworthy, An Garda Síochána also confirmed that it has received “clear legal advice” that there is no legislative basis for it to collect ethnicity data from people they come into contact with.
“Therefore there is no concrete data available to indicate that ethnic profiling is undertaken by members of An Garda Síochána,” the statement continued, adding that it “has previously informed the Policing Authority of this legal advice”, “is in favour of having the ability to record such data and is liaising with the Department of Justice on this matter”.
Speaking to people ‘on the ground’
Superintendent Corbett said there has been a number of other strands of work happening in the organisation in recent years to improve relations with the Traveller community.
This includes the establishment of a the Garda Traveller Advisory Group in 2018 which includes Traveller representative organisations from all over the country. Corbett described the groups discussions as “robust” and said it is a good forum for addressing issues and challenges on the ground as they arise.
The organisation takes part in ‘dialogue days’, facilitated by the Traveller Mediation Service and Corbett said this is some of the most impactful work that takes place in this area.
“It’s basically an exchange of views. At a national level we meet the representatives and we talk about strategies and policies and that’s important, but if you want to make progress you need to have people on the ground speaking to each other.”
There are also around 380 Garda Diversity Officers trained across the country on community policing units, who he said have good knowledge of the kinds of issues affecting minority communities and who are embedded in those communities.
Corbett pointed to the recent garda recruitment drive as a signal of improvement in the perception of the organisation among Travellers. There were 44 people in the 2022 recruitment campaign who self-identified as Travellers in their application. This is up from 18 Traveller applicants in the 2019 recruitment campaign.
“So there were nearly three times as many Travellers wanting to join An Garda Síochána,” he said.
It’s not going to solve the problem, but it is an indication that things are changing, that young Travellers have a different view and they want to join An Garda Síochána – and we want them to join, because that is one avenue of building trust and confidence and has real meaning to the community.
Corbett said An Garda Síochána wants to be a police service for all and he encouraged members of the Traveller community to engage with them, particularly if they are a victim of a crime.
He also said the organisation is ready for the roll-out of hate crime legislation when it comes into force and is confident that gardaí will be able to build strong cases that secure convictions in the courts.
Opportunity to reflect
Helen Hall of the Policing Authority said the oversight body recognises that An Garda Síochána is taking steps to address the deficits in its relationship with the Traveller community.
“To be fair to the organisation, I think there’s a strong policy intent to try to change things,” she said.
“They were ahead of legislation as regards putting in their diversity strategy a definition of hate crime. The challenge, I suppose, is that you might have the policy intent, but how do you consistently get that across in interactions between people and frontline members, the attitude or language or demeanour of an individual garda may erode what you’re trying to do in the organisation.
“I think this report is really valuable and it’s an opportunity for them to reflect, I think the reaction of the Commissioner was a knee-jerk reaction and I hope now that they are reflecting on it, but this is not something the authority will leave alone.”
FULL SERIES IS OUT NOW
From unfair treatment to overuse of protection regimes, part two examines inequality in Ireland’s prison system. Civil law is the focus of part three and we reveal that councils are refusing homeless accommodation to Travellers using criteria ‘with no basis in law’.
Have a listen to The Explainer x Noteworthy podcast on the investigation’s findings.
This article – written and researched by Michelle Hennessy of The Journal - is part of our BLIND JUSTICE investigation. The project team – led by Hennessy – also includes Maria Delaney of Noteworthy and freelance journalist Martin Beanz Warde.
This Noteworthy investigation was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy general investigative fund to cover additional costs.