police

Whistleblowers are seldom treated well in Ireland. This is a sign of bigger problems.

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The brinkmanship displayed by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in recent weeks over the Garda whistleblower controversy has weakened the Taoiseach’s position to the point where a general election in the new year seems inevitable. Leo Varadkar took office among the usual optimism, coupled with bewildering international acclaim from the foreign media that seemed fascinated by the fact he is Ireland’s first openly gay head of government. Yet in his first major test he has delivered a disappointing performance. His style of leadership seems to reward loyalty over competence, and this is worrying.

While the political drama has been mesmerizing, the fall from grace of Frances Fitzgerald, who was effectively pressured to resign from her position as Tánaiste, highlights severe weaknesses in the ship of the Irish state. At the heart of the case is the abominable treatment of former Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Here was an honorable man who did the right thing by calling out Garda corruption and malfeasance. His reward for doing his civic duty was to be ostracized, intimidated, and made a victim of a horrendous smear campaign. He was set upon by the management of the police, politicians, and many more. Senior figures even sought to trump up unfounded accusations of child abuse and pedophilia, an outrageous accusation and arguably the worst label that could be applied to anyone. Murderers are almost treated more leniently in the public mind than abusers of children.

That McCabe drew so much ire from so many people in the establishment is a sign of a sickness that runs through many institutions, through the media, and may go all the way to the top of government. Gemma O’Doherty, an investigative reporter at the Irish Independent, found herself looking for a new job after she tried to get to the root of the story about her paper’s editor having penalty points conveniently wiped from his driving license. Martin Callinan, the Garda commissioner at the time, became defensive and seemed more offended by the fact that McCabe was making the allegations than the substance of the allegations themselves. Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister at the time, took an equally adversarial approach, going as far as to use Dáil privilege to make an unfounded claim (later withdrawn) that McCabe had refused to cooperate with the Garda internal investigation into the penalty points scandal, when in fact McCabe had not even been approached by the investigators.

For her part, Frances Fitzgerald and her Fine Gael colleagues have defended her actions saying that she did nothing wrong in connection to her email dealings. Fitzgerald claimed no knowledge of any deliberate smear campaign against McCabe until it became public, a claim contradicted by the fact that as far back as May 2015 she received an email indicating that the smear campaign did exist and was deliberately orchestrated. Her initial defense was to claim that she did not remember receiving any such email, then she changed the emphasis to say that she was unable to do anything about it.

Politicians have now taken to bickering over the legal technicalities of whether she was legally allowed intervene or how she could forget reading such an important email. All of this misses the core point. The smear campaign was a vile, nasty, and contemptible response to McCabe’s allegations. The correct response would have been to express deep concern at the possibility of such corruption, to promise to get to the bottom of it, to thank the whistleblowers for doing their civic duty, and to hold them up as role models that the rest of the state should aspire to. However it would seem that whistleblowers in Ireland, in whatever sector they expose wrongdoing, are still treated abysmally and can face personal ruin as their reward for doing the right thing, and they can even make an enemy of the government.

The Protected Disclosures Act of 2014, known popularly as the whistleblower act, does provide some good protections. In theory employees of any organization can report wrongdoing internally where any retaliation by management would be illegal, or can report to the media if there is reasonable expectation that reporting wrongdoing by other means will result in retaliation.

If a court finds that you were unfairly dismissed you will generally be entitled to two years’ pay as compensation, but the act allows for 5 years’ pay in compensation if you were fired as a result of making a protected disclosure. Legislation like this is all well and good, but going through the courts to seek redress is no simple business for the average citizen.

So far the Garda whistleblower controversy has claimed the jobs of one justice minister, two Garda Commissioners, one journalist, one former justice minister and Taniste, and has come perilously close to claiming the scalp of the Taoiseach himself. Where will it end? It is too early to say, but there is a real chance that more heads will have to roll in high places. This is because of a culture of circling the wagons. A culture of valuing loyalty over competence. A culture that resembles the school playground attitude to the dreaded “snitch” who betrays his friends by passing information to the teachers.

Ireland’s institutions must do better than this. They need to stop seeing whistleblowers as inconvenient tattle-tales and start seeing them as the helpful and brave citizens they are. In short, the institutional culture of the state needs to grow up.

Invasive surveillance and excessively militarized policing could undermine support for, and hence the effectiveness of, law enforcement.

In Ireland they are known as Peelers. In England they are known as Bobbies. Both nicknames for the police are derived from the same person, Sir Robert Peel, the British Home Secretary who formed London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829 and with it the modern model of organized law enforcement. Peel went on to serve twice as Prime Minister.

The reasons given at the time for this radical reform were increasing concerns about drunkenness and lawlessness, and the inefficiencies of existing parish-based law enforcement arrangements which had been inconsistent from one part of the city to the next. While the crime figures and corruption and incompetence of local patrols are disputed by some historians, and thought to be a pretext, the new Metropolitan Police did offer a standardized means of consistent enforcement citywide that did not suffer in less wealthy areas.

However one very important reason for systematic policing was to save the authorities the trouble of deploying soldiers to the streets. Peel understood that the military were trained to use deadly force against a hostile foreign enemy, and deploying them against the civilian population that they were supposed to be defending was a decidedly risky endeavor. An unarmed civilian agency could be better trained to specialize in dealing with street-level crime without causing loss of life that would undermine support for the state and its efforts to keep order.

Throughout history governments have made the mistake of using the military for law enforcement purposes, and the results have often been tragic and have led to massive political upheaval. In 1905, Russian authorities deployed troops around the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to contain a mass demonstration by striking workers who were marching on the Tsar’s winter residence. The confused and disorganized response of the thousands of soldiers led to the shooting and trampling to death of an estimated thousand or more unarmed civilians in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, an event that fatally undermined royal power in Russia and stoked the fires of revolution. The deployment of trigger-happy British troops in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, in the absence of a functioning impartial local police force, led to another Bloody Sunday in Derry, a loss of innocent civilian life that ultimately spawned the 25-year conflict of the Troubles. The Chinese authorities used troops to break up a pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the outcome of that was a catastrophic human cost, the isolation of China, and the setting back of reform for decades.

One would think that enlightened governments would have learned by now that there is a distinction between the role of the military and that of law enforcement. However it would seem that this distinction is blurring in the United States.

With a military machine that is overflowing with equipment that is foisted upon it by posturing congressmen in thrall to their defense contractor donors who are strategically placed in just about every congressional district, the Pentagon has taken to giving away large swathes of its arms.

Since 2006, local police departments have acquired 432 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles (MRAPs), 435 other armored vehicles such as Humvees, 44,900 night vision goggles, 533 aircraft, 93,763 machine guns, and 180,718 ammunition magazines. Hardly necessary for pulling someone over for a broken tail light.

The military transfer program allows police departments to snap up equipment at bargain prices, equipment that would otherwise be scrapped. The result is police departments of small towns and cities, far from the vast metropolises of the northeast that have always been the targets of terrorism in the past, stocking up on an arsenal that would hold back an alien invasion. By playing the “officer safety” card, they can find it easy to justify their acquisitions.

While police forces taking possession of such equipment claim that they are preparing for unlikely eventualities and the armored cars and tanks and guns are likely to spend most of their time idle, there are reports of heavily armed SWAT teams conducting terrifying military grade raids for tasks as mundane as liquor inspections and checking business licenses. Police recruiting videos now contain scenes that would not look out of place in war-themed video games, with the doors of homes being battered in and smoke grenades thrown in.

Furthermore, new technology is enabling law enforcement agencies to monitor society and process more data even faster. Privacy advocates balk at the ability of the government to snoop on private communications and the movements of citizens in public. Data processing centers can now find fingerprint matches against criminal records in minutes, a process that used to take months. Facial recognition technology can identify a person no matter what false name and address they give. An aerial observation system called Persistence Surveillance Systems can record the movements of vehicles and pedestrians for later analysis, allowing police to go back to the time and place where a crime was reported and see it taking place. This technology has limits for now—a getaway car will often drive out of camera range—and the low resolution prevents the actual identification of vehicles or individuals without corroboration from other surveillance sources, and as such it is yet to be adopted by any law enforcement body. Nonetheless, civil liberties advocates find this a sinister development, particularly since it was used on a trial basis by Compton police in LA County in 2012 without public knowledge or consent.

A look at the history of policing finds that new methods of law enforcement are usually initially met with some opposition, but are eventually accepted. The unflattering nicknames given to the police, some with porcine connotations, are lingering signs of resentment that have never fully gone away since the inception of policing. Closed circuit television cameras in British town centers were once treated with horror by anyone who had read Nineteen Eighty Four, but are now commonplace and a largely accepted safety feature. Advocates of expanded surveillance claim that street lighting was once criticized as Big Brother personified, but soon came to be seen as an essential public safety feature, and advanced surveillance will eventually find the same acceptance as the public gets used to it.

They may a have a point. The American public waits in line for air travel with its pain-in-the-neck security theatre, an ordeal that is met with a mixture of quietly anxious watch-checking and resignation.

Even the most invasive Orwellian surveillance may come to be as accepted as the TSA pat-down, but only if the truly guilty find themselves on the receiving end of special police attention. However if innocent people are caught up in over-zealous policing, particularly if military-grade equipment and war combat methods are used, then support for law enforcement will be undermined. Police departments could do well to remember that the effectiveness of their operation depends a lot more on the cooperation and trust of the communities they are sworn to protect than on the intimidating size of their vehicles or the war-readiness of their weapons. The citizens of Compton, California are not the Iraqi insurgency. They must never be treated as such.

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