The thin blue line

Teenagers in Dublin’s in­ner city say they are con­stantly stopped by gar­daí, even while wear­ing their school uni­forms

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Are stop and searches good polic­ing, or sim­ply garda ha­rass­ment of youths?

Ev­ery day in parts of Dublin, teenagers are searched and talked to by gar­daí as though they are adult crim­i­nals. I see this oc­ca­sion­ally as I walk through Sum­mer­hill or the North Strand and, when­ever I write about teenagers in the in­ner city, it comes up ca­su­ally in con­ver­sa­tion as part of their day-to-day re­al­ity.

“The jus­tice sys­tem is not set up for chil­dren, it’s set up for adults,” says Ni­chola Mooney, a team leader at the Rialto Youth Project. “How young peo­ple are ques­tioned [by gar­daí] is the same as how adults are ques­tioned . . . by adults trained to deal with adult crim­i­nals.”

The be­hav­iour of mem­bers of An Garda Síochána is in fo­cus at the mo­ment. Trust i n polic­ing has been dam­aged by the whistle­blower cri­sis, the Job­stown trial and the penalty points fi­asco. Kids in the in­ner city were ahead of the curve on this dis­trust.

In an­other Dublin youth cen­tre, I meet five teenagers to talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing stopped and searched by gar­daí. Th­ese are all, their youth work­ers stress, good kids in­volved in youth ser­vices, who are still in school and are not con­nected to crim­i­nal­ity. Their names have been changed. They are all aged 16, ex­cept De­clan who is 14. The na­ture of the in­ter­ac­tions with gar­daí they de­scribe is cor­rob­o­rated by any youth work­ers I’ve spo­ken to.

What hap­pened the last time they were stopped by gar­daí?

“When I got pulled the last time they threw me up against the wall and said, ‘Empty your pock­ets’,” says De­clan. “They flicked the hat off my head and told me to take off my jacket and my shoes. You’re just stand­ing there con­fused.”

“I wa s about t o g o h o me [one day],” says Rob, “and the po­lice came up and asked our names. The girl cop said, ‘We could ar­rest you now.’ Why? ‘Be­cause I don’t like the way you look. That’s a stupid hat, f** k off home be­fore we ar­rest you.’”

“I got stopped yes­ter­day,” says Kyle. “I was walk­ing home with my lit­tle sis­ter and there was a check­point and they searched me. She’s seven. I had to tell her to wait over by the bush as they searched my pock­ets, looked at my phone. ‘ What’s that?’ ‘Um, it’s a phone?’”

“Our lit­tle broth­ers and sis­ters see us be­ing stopped all the time,” says Conor. “They’re scared of guards.”

“My brother’s nine,” says De­clan. “He’ll be stopped soon.”

When did they start be­ing stopped? “Around the age of 13 it starts,” says Kyle. “When they think you look old enough, they think, ‘He looks easy enough to mess about with’.”

“It doesn’t hap­pen as much to girls,” says Sarah. “I was walk­ing down [the road] and they stopped us but I was with him [ Conor] and an­other girl. They didn’t check us at all, just him.”

It can hap­pen very sud­denly and with­out warn­ing, says Rob. “You might be walk­ing down the road with your friends and they come over and shove you up against the wall.”

So­lic­i­tor Gareth Noble has an in­ter­est in how some young peo­ple are treated as crim­i­nal sus­pects by gar­daí from a young age. “It hap­pens in cer­tain parts of the city,” he says. “Cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties are much more likely to be tar­geted for stop and search pro­vi­sions. It’s not hap­pen­ing too much in Balls­bridge or Dalkey.”

What are the le­gal pre­req­ui­sites for a search? “All the gar­daí have to demon­strate is that they have a rea­son­able cause to be­lieve that the search is re­quired,” says Noble. “They might say that a per­son looked ner­vous or sus­pi­cious or was act­ing in a strange man­ner.”

Gar­daí them­selves don’t al­ways seem to un­der­stand the rules, he says. “I was in the Chil­dren’s Court [re­cently] and a case was dis­missed be­cause the rea­son [ the garda had] stopped and searched this guy was that he had asked him his name and then es­tab­lished on the Garda Pulse sys­tem that this guy had pre­vi­ously been sub­jected to a search… The judge said, ‘Wait a sec- ond, you have to have a [ cur­rent] rea­son you’re sub­ject­ing him to a search,’ and he said, ‘Oh, but that would be stan­dard prac­tice’.”

It’s an un­wise prac­tice, says Noble, be­cause it can turn teenagers into crim­i­nals. It’s not un­usual to find a teenager in the Chil­dren’s Court up on an “ob­struc­tion of jus­tice” charge, he says, “and it’s noth­ing to do with any­thing found dur­ing the course of the search but all about the in­ter­ac­tion with the gar­daí. It’s cer­tainly led to a num­ber of chil­dren I’ve seen be­ing up in front of the courts . . . Among ju­ve­niles, stop and search is a real live is­sue and it’s a con­tin­u­ing is­sue that presents it­self in the Chil­dren’s Courts. It’s very cor­ro­sive in terms of the re­la­tion­ship that’s nec­es­sary be­tween gar­daí and the lo­cal com­mu­nity.”

What do gar­daí do when they stop a teenager? “They ask your name, your ad­dress and if they don’t think that’s enough they search you,” says Conor.

“They usu­ally search you first,” says De­clan. “They do, yeah,” says Rob. “They some­times just push you against the wall,” says De­clan.

Do they say why they’re stop­ping them? “They try to come up with a stupid rea­son,” says Kyle.

“But they don’t al­ways tell you,” says Conor.

“They get an­gry when we ask ques­tions some­times and they start rough­ing us up,” says Rob. “They get an­gry if you try to con­tra­dict them even when you know you’re right.”

Why do t hey t hink t hey’re be­ing stopped? “I think it’s be­cause it’s easy,” says Conor. “Some­times you’re stopped and you can ac­tu­ally see drug deal­ers sell­ing across the road. You look at them and look back at the guards and say, ‘ Are you for real?’”

“I think they do it when they’re bored,” says Rob.

“They try and em­bar­rass you,” says Conor. “And it is em­bar­rass­ing. If you get stopped and your ma’s friend sees that – she’s go­ing to tell your ma. They’re ba­si­cally nam­ing and sham­ing you.” “They make a show of you,” says Rob. “And word spreads,” says Conor. “Chi­nese whis­pers. One minute you’re be­ing stopped by the guards in your school uni­form, the next peo­ple are say­ing that you’re a high-rank­ing drug dealer.” Prof Der­mot Walsh, an ex­pert in polic­ing at the Univer­sity of Kent’s law school and a for­mer mem­ber of Ire­land’s Na­tional Crime Coun­cil, has been watch­ing this phe­nom­e­non for decades.

“When I was on the Na­tional Crime Coun­cil we in­ves­ti­gated this prob­lem but the only thing that came of it was con­fir­ma­tion [ that it ex­ists] – the ex­tent to which gar­daí treat th­ese young peo­ple as trash . . . not fel­low hu­man be­ings who are de­serv­ing of re­spect . . . It was recog­nised that th­ese meth­ods were un­ac­cept­able and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and some­thing needed to be done about it.” He sighs. “But if you’ve been do­ing much work on polic­ing in the coun­try, you’ll know that it’s an in­sti­tu­tion that’s al­most im­per­vi­ous to change, es­pe­cially with re­spect to how in­di­vid­ual po­lice of­fi­cers be­have on the ground when they know that no one else is look­ing and when they know no one else cares . . . The Garda mind­set sees th­ese young peo­ple as the en­emy.”

How do teenagers re­spond to be­ing stopped and searched like that? “You start think­ing about what you’re wear­ing,’” says Conor. “Can I wear black? Will I wear this? You try not to dress like a north­sider. If I’m go­ing some­where else I try and dress like a south­sider.”

“But then if you’re wear­ing nice clothes they say, “Did you get that money from drugs?’” says De­clan.

“Re­cently a guard s t opped and searched me in my school uni­form,” says Conor. “‘ Who are you, what are you do­ing?’ ‘ Uh, I’m go­ing to school.’ ‘ Are you mitch­ing?’ ‘ No, I’m ac­tu­ally go­ing to school.’ They searched my bag and pock­ets. You worry about what you wear and then you get stopped in your school uni­form.”

“We should have a right to wear what we want to wear,” says Rob. Do they feel an­gry? “In sit­u­a­tions [ with gar­daí] where I know I didn’t do any­thing wrong, I’m cool,” says Rob. “I know I didn’t do any­thing. I know not to panic . . . Guards can put us into court for scream­ing at them. If you were to el­bow a garda, they’d say ‘that’s as­sault’ but throw­ing us into a wall isn’t as­sault.”

“I run some­times be­cause I don’t want to be dragged out in the street and have ev­ery­one talk­ing about me,” says De­clan.

“You get sick of it,” says Kyle. “So I go on lit­tle trips out of the area just to avoid them.”

“If you keep get­ting stopped you might snap,” says Conor. “You do your best to stay calm.”

“I think they want a re­ac­tion out of you,” says Rob.

In 2009 Ni­chola Mooney, the artist Fiona Whe­lan and other com­mu­nity work­ers in the Rialto Youth Project launched the Polic­ing Dia­logues project. It came out of an­other ini­tia­tive started by Whe­lan in which young peo­ple dis­cussed power and re­counted their ex­pe­ri­ence of pow­er­less­ness. “We were struck by how many of those ex­pe­ri­ences were about in­ter­ac­tions with the gar­daí,” says Whe­lan.

They started an­other project with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of cur­rent Deputy Garda Com­mis­sioner John Twomey, who was then the chief su­per­in­ten­dent of the Dublin South Cen­tral dis­trict. They col­lected anony­mous sto­ries of neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tions with gar­daí and then, at an event in the Ir­ish Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, 26 soon- to- be de­ployed new gar­daí read th­ese pieces aloud.

“They wore their uni­forms,” says Ni­chola Mooney. “There was some dis­cus­sion about that . . . Once you’re in a uni­form you have power al­ready, by virtue of the uni­form. We agreed in the end that they would leave the ASPs [ba­tons] and the hats aside.”

“That was John Twomey’s idea,” says Whe­lan.

It was a pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. Some gar­daí were moved. Oth­ers were de­fen­sive. It led to an in­tense dis­cus­sion and a res­i­dency at The Lab in Fo­ley Street at which more ac­counts of po­lice in­ter­ac­tions were col­lected, this time from be­yond Rialto.

“Some were about ac­tual po­lice vi­o­lence,” says Whe­lan. “But the main trend was sub­tle, in­sid­i­ous, con­stant dis­re­spect and what a con­stant as­sump­tion of guilt does to your soul.”

Whe­lan and Mooney be­gan to think more about the short­falls in Garda train­ing. Many of the gar­daí in the ac­counts they col­lected didn’t live in the area they po­liced and were ill-equipped to deal with the com­plex­i­ties.

“They’re on the front line try­ing to do their job,” says Mooney, “and they of­ten don’t un­der­stand the his­tor­i­cal legacy of how ar­eas like this have been ne­glected.”

With the help of gar­daí they cre­ated two train­ing mod­ules for gar­daí in Dublin South Cen­tral us­ing what they’d learned. “We signed off on it,” says Whe­lan. “It was pub­lic. We had a press re­lease. Then in the bud­get of 2010/ 11 all Garda train­ing was cut . . . When Tem­ple­more re­opened a year or so ago we wrote back and [ re­minded them that] ‘this was ap­proved’.”

The pro­gramme has yet to be put in place. The deputy com­mis­sioner, John Twomey, did not re­spond to re­quests for an in­ter­view.

Do the teens in the youth cen­tre see any rea­son for gar­daí to stop and search peo­ple?

They dis­cuss this among them­selves for a while.

“There are some kids car­ry­ing drugs,” says Conor.

“They think it’ll be easy money but it catches them in the end,” says Kyle.

Maybe some searches are needed, they con­clude, but they think gar­daí would get more out of them by treat­ing them as hu- man be­ings not sus­pects. They ap­pre­ci­ate gar­daí who do just that.

“The JLOs are nice,” says Conor. A JLO is a ju­ve­nile li­ai­son of­fi­cer.

“And when a garda asks what foot­ball team you sup­port or some­thing like that, treats you like a per­son, that’s nice,” says Rob. “You can get along with them. You’re hap­pier to talk to them then.”

“Re­mem­ber the one on the quays on his bike?” says De­clan.

“He was cool, he was,” says Kyle. “He was ask­ing loads of ques­tions but we were ask­ing him ques­tions as well. I think he was a south­side guard. He knew we were hav­ing a laugh, that we were do­ing no harm.”

Ev­ery­one agrees com­mu­nity polic­ing is cru­cial. “It fos­ters good re­la­tions if it’s done prop­erly within com­mu­ni­ties.” says Gareth Noble. “The Garda di­ver­sion projects do hugely im­por­tant work, forg­ing con­nec­tions be­tween young peo­ple and the po­lice. But all that good work is set at naught if chil­dren have a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of an ag­gres­sive and un­nec­es­sary search.”

It’s re­ally im­por­tant, say Ni­chola Mooney, that teenagers are treated with re­spect. “The amount of con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with young peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly young men, who are frus­trated and an­gry and up­set un­der­neath it all. They have to hold them­selves in all the time. ‘Why do I keep get­ting stopped? I’m j ust walk­ing to school.’ . . . Young peo­ple are dif­fer­ent, de­vel­op­men­tally and so­cially [ than adults]. They have dif­fer­ent strug­gles with men­tal health, drugs, poverty and op­pres­sion . . . Our ar­gu­ment is that [ the garda] is the adult in the sit­u­a­tion so it’s their re­spon­si­bil­ity to dic­tate the tone of the con­ver­sa­tion.”

Fiona Whe­lan sighs. “When I was grow­ing up I had a sense of en­ti­tle­ment to pub­lic space,” she says. “I felt I could go wher­ever I wanted and I felt free. Th­ese kids are made feel like they’re tres­pass­ing all the time.”

She hopes that in the age of Garda Síochána Om­buds­man Com­mis­sion in­quiries and whistle­blower scan­dals that there’s more ap­petite for in­sti­tu­tional change now.

Der­mot Walsh is not so sure. He thinks that his­tor­i­cally Garda Síochána mem­bers see them­selves as guardians of a hi­er­ar­chi­cal State, not the ser­vants of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. “There’s been a sense of cri­sis in polic­ing here for sev­eral decades now,” he says. “We had the Mor­ris tri­bunal [into al­leged po­lice cor­rup­tion] and ev­ery­thing was sup­posed to be fun­da­men­tally re­formed. . . I wouldn’t be sur­prised if you come back in a few years’ time to find that noth­ing has changed, that there’s still shenani­gans go­ing on be­tween the up­per ech­e­lons of the Garda and the Gov­ern­ment, that there doesn’t seem to be any mech­a­nism for deal­ing with cor­rup­tion and abuse and that th­ese kids are still be­ing ha­rassed by the guards.” How of­ten are they stopped by po­lice? “Ev­ery sec­ond day,” says Kyle. “More for me,” says De­clan (the oth­ers ad­mit that for some rea­son De­clan is stopped more). “I’ll be 50 be­fore they stop, I reckon.” Are you less in­clined to trust gar­daí? “Yeah,” says Rob. “I don’t feel safe around po­lice.”

“You should feel free to walk through your own area and feel safe,” says Conor. “If guards were al­lowed guns in Ire­land, I’d be re­ally scared.”

Would they call gar­daí if they needed them or wit­nessed a crime? “You wouldn’t go to them,” says Conor, and the oth­ers nod. What would you like gar­daí to know? “That they don’t have to stop and search us,” says Rob. “They could just ask us ques­tions, talk to us. There’s no need to make a show of us on front of the peo­ple in our area, mak­ing us look like scum­bags or crim­i­nals.”

“We’re not adults,” says Conor. “Should we carry a sign say­ing, ‘ We’re un­der 18. What are you throw­ing us against a wall for?’ I’d like to be treated like their kids are treated. That’s what I’d like. If their kids were be­ing stopped I think it would end soon enough.”

An Garda Síochána de­clined to pro­vide a spokesper­son to com­ment on th­ese is­sues, and the Garda Rep­re­sen­ta­tive As­so­ci­a­tion did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Polic­ing in this coun­try is al­most im­per­vi­ous to change, es­pe­cially with re­spect to how in­di­vid­ual po­lice of­fi­cers be­have on the ground They’re on the front line try­ing to do their job, and they of­ten don’t un­der­stand the his­tor­i­cal legacy of how ar­eas like this have been ne­glected

“[Com­mu­nity polic­ing] fos­ters good re­la­tions if it’s done prop­erly,” says so­lic­i­tor Gareth Noble. PHOTOGRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL

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