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Bullying within the Gardai
An examination of what is being done regarding claims of consistent bullying within the ranks of our national police force
An investigation of government and Garda Siochana policies on bullying and harrassment within the Gardai
Bullies in Blue
Bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment and racism are all topics one would expect the Gardai Siochana to be dealing with every day. But one would hope that when it comes to these problems, they are not being perpetrated from within the ranks of our national police force on their fellow Gardai. But this is exactly what is going on in hundreds of police stations across the country.
Garda unions have, for some time, been claiming that bullying has spiralled out of control within the force, in the last year particularly, but these proclamations have been firmly rejected by Garda superiors. Garda Representative Association (GRA) president Dermot O'Donnell warned Justice Minister Michael McDowell at their annual conference last year that his organisation could no longer tolerate bullying of its members. Mr. O'Donnell quoted consultant psychiatrist Dr Michael Corry, who in 1993 set up a peer support group structure to deal with bullying in the force. Dr. Corry confirmed that bullying was one of the greatest sources of stress in the force. He added that it was "saddening to sit in front of fine men and women who have had their will and spirit systematically broken down by serial predatorial bullies".
At this time Dr.Corry had written a letter to the GRA because the number of Gardai still coming to him with complaints of harassment or bullying was so high. His letter was subsequently read out at the GRA conference in Tralee last April, with Mr. McDowell present. The Minister said Garda authorities told him there was no evidence to back the claims. He said the Gardai had a “comprehensive policy on issues relating to equality, bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.” The Garda Commissioner, he added, had directed the setting up of a working group (an internal group made up of middle to high- ranking Gardai) to review the policy. Mr. O'Donnell said Gardai would not have the right to complain against another Garda to a proposed Ombudsman's Commission, and said there should be an independent (i.e. non-Garda) forum for airing any grievances.
But despite all this attention and talk last year, nothing is being done about it. In December 2005, a 43 year-old Garda quit the force because of bullying. His account of how he was treated by a number of co-workers and superiors is shocking. This man, who had served over 20 years in the Gardai and had a wife and three children, spoke of initial bullying beginning when he completed a mediation course. At first, the harassment took the form of his station sergeant making facial gestures every time he saw him, or undermining his work at every available opportunity, but after making complaints he found himself to be the subject of ridicule. He was told to use the Internal Grievance Procedure, a procedure outlined in a lengthy document the Gardai have prepared to deal with such matters. This proved to make matters worse. The Chief dealing with his complaint, a Chief this procedure asks you to avail of and confide in, began to call his house at all hours. Patrol cars would drive by his house repeatedly when he was home. His pay envelopes and other post were opened and hand-delivered to him. Eventually he had no choice but to retire from his job and his case is currently being heard in the High Court.
If a member of the Garda is being bullied or harassed, research shows that their options are limited. The Health and Safety Authority state that their ‘remit on bullying is a policy one.’ They do not, it continues, have an ‘interventionist role’ but can assist in terms of policy and management of the issue generally at an organisational level. This seems impotent at best. Seeing that our Minister for Justice refuses to even acknowledge that there is a problem in this area, we turn next to the document mentioned earlier, the one that contains the Internal Grievance Procedure and guidelines on the steps a Garda should take if he/she finds themselves to be the victim of bullying. This lengthy document repeatedly stresses that the matter can be (should be?) dealt with internally and seems to deter one from taking any complaint beyond Garda ranks at all. It also mentions that if an internal investigation is unsatisfactory, then perhaps the complainant could go to the Equality Authority ‘without involvement of legal processes.’ Emphasis is given to the ‘conscientious and sensitive approach’ supervisors will have regarding complaints, therefore avoiding the necessity for ‘recourse to the formal procedure outlined above’.
The myopic view of bullying within their own ranks by the Gardai was evident at last year’s Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors meeting, when Sgt. Willie Gleeson, treasurer of the AGSI national executive said: “We have a few cases in county Cork in relation to bullying but there is a structure there to deal with it.” The harassment is simply not being acknowledged by the Gardai or by the Department of Justice. As Dr. Corry says: “Bullying in the Gardai is ubiquitous at the moment. It’s a huge problem. Because I do a lot of work with prison officers and the Gardai, I would say they are the ones that get bullied the most.”
The hierarchical nature of the Gardai means that bullies can give orders, designed to upset the victim. Also under the Garda chain of command system, superiors can read open letters from the chief medical officer before they are handed to their subordinates. In May 2005, Mr. McDowell was asked if his attention had been drawn to claims by the president of the GRA that insidious bullying is rife within the Gardai. McDowell said that he had been advised by the Gardai authorities that there is no evidence to support the claims made by the president of the GRA. Following this the Minister admitted that he had received anecdotal evidence of at least one Garda who had committed suicide because of bullying, which mirrors the suicide last month of a female Metropolitan police officer in London after she had been repeatedly harassed at her station by colleagues. Mary T. O’Connor, whose book ‘On the Beat’ chronicles her Garda career and the sexual harassment she suffered during it amongst other things, was the subject of scorn at the hands of Gardai, both on the phone and in the audience, when she appeared on RTE’s Late Late Show to discuss her experiences as a Garda. Irate Gardai accused her of breaking a trust by discussing what she experienced in her, now former, career, again highlighting the attempt to keep everything within their ranks by the police force.
But if the Gardai Siochana refuse to be held accountable when they’re in the wrong, and they continue to perpetuate this web of cover-ups and deceit regarding what really goes on behind the closed doors of the local Garda station, how can the Gardai expect the Irish public to respect and have faith in them? Procedures are needed to deal comprehensively, and swiftly, with incidents of bullying in the force. The lack of a suitable external investigation unit is a situation that needs to be rectified. Confidence in the Gardai and the manner in which it performs its duties is a cornerstone of our democratic society. Because of this, the Irish public must have absolute trust and confidence in the Gardai Siochana. It is problems such as those highlighted in this piece that need to be resolved quickly and permanently to help the Gardai regain the support and trust of the people of Ireland.