Statement by the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, T.D.

Dáil Statements on Community Safety and Preventing Crime

 

18 November 2020

 

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I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement here today on community safety and preventing crime.

 

Members of the House will be aware that the mission of An Garda Síochána is ‘Keeping People Safe’. This is a simple message, but a very deep one.

 

Community safety is a much broader concept than crime or fear of crime. Community safety is about people being safe and feeling safe in their community. It can include the responsiveness of emergency services, mental health issues, education, drug prevention, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, youth crime, anti-social behaviour, hate crime and the built environment.

 

This is reflected in the key principle in the Programme for Government, Our Shared Future, to build stronger and safer communities. The well-being of our communities is among our highest priorities and we want members of the public to feel confident and secure in going about their lives. 

 

As the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recognised, community safety in this broad sense is not just the responsibility of An Garda Síochána. Responses need to be community-specific and require a range of services, such as strengthening youth services or increasing street lighting. This requires a multi-sectoral approach, strong inter-agency collaboration and community engagement with a key role for health and social services, as well as other sectors of society.

 

A Policing Service for our Future’, the Government’s implementation plan for the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing is strongly based around meeting the public’s needs in this way through increased visibility of Gardaí on the street and increased engagement with all local communities in order to ensure their particular needs are being met.

 

Community engagement has of course been a defining feature of An Garda Síochána since its establishment almost 100 years ago. This has perhaps never been more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic with local Gardaí nationwide going above and beyond the call of duty to support vulnerable groups within their communities. These efforts on part of individual Gardaí include visiting elderly and vulnerable members of the community, dropping off food, medicine and other necessities, liaising with representatives of community groups, and many other focused efforts to serve their communities.

 

I want to take this opportunity to thank An Garda Síochána again for their extraordinary commitment to policing during this unprecedented year. As the Policing Authority have noted, the rich relationships built during this period should create a strong foundation for the future of policing within this country moving forward.

 

It is important that we now build the structures which can ensure community safety is embedded in the work of the State in all communities across the country.

 

In line with the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing, my Department has been developing a new national Community Safety policy which will feed into the development of a new Policing and Community Safety Bill.

 

The Bill, which will provide the backbone to policing reform, will redefine the functions of An Garda Síochána to include the prevention of harm to those who are vulnerable. However, the problems communities face are not just limited to policing issues. Bringing the right services together and working with each other to tackle the underlying issues which impact on a community and the sense of safety within the community is key.

 

The legislation will therefore place an obligation on Departments, State agencies and local authorities to cooperate with An Garda Síochána in relation to the broader issue of community safety, and refine local structures to better support local accountability for policing. 

 

As part of this work, I last week announced three new Local Community Safety Partnerships which will be established on a pilot basis in the Dublin North Inner City Electoral Area, Waterford and Longford. The locations of the pilots, which will run for 24 months, were chosen based on a number of factors including population density, crime rates and deprivation.

 

The Partnerships, which will be independently chaired, will replace the local Joint Policing Committees, building on those existing structures and bringing together residents, community representatives (including youth, new communities and the voluntary sector), business interests, councillors, local authorities and State services such as An Garda Síochána, Tusla and the HSE.

 

The agenda and objectives of each Partnership will be driven by the community itself and each Partnership will devise and implement a Local Community Safety Plan, reflecting community priorities and local safety issues. The model is built on the principle that every community needs to be central in identifying what it needs and helping to shape solutions and State services will be held to account by each Partnership.

 

The active engagement of community reps and residents will be critical in ensuring the work is community-driven. Training will be provided to support the capacity of each Partnership to work together, with individual training for residents to develop their understanding of their role and confidence in representing their community.

 

As the pilots progress, they will be carefully evaluated and any changes that are necessary will be made to ensure the Partnerships work as effectively as possible for the communities concerned. The pilots will inform a national roll-out in all local authority areas.  

 

The Commission on the Future of Policing recognised that while preventing and investigating crime is a top priority for An Garda Síochána, in practice the majority of police time, in Ireland and elsewhere, is spent on harm prevention. Often, particularly out of hours, it is An Garda Síochána who are at the front line when dealing with persons with mental health or addiction issues, homeless persons and others at risk.

 

As well as taking a multi-agency approach to planning for and responding to day to day community safety, it is also necessary to ensure that a cooperative approach is taken to handling what can be an emergency situation involving an individual who, for instance as a result of a mental health or addiction issue, may be at risk themselves or pose a risk to others.

 

This approach would see multi-agency Crisis Intervention Teams put in place with round the clock response capabilities, and ultimately where possible these teams would be co-located. These Teams would involve police working with health, including mental health and substance abuse interventions, as well as social and youth workers with a capacity to respond to emergencies and to intervene with people at risk in their communities. 

 

Local Community Safety Partnerships could identify areas of need within the community that would benefit from the support of Crisis Intervention Teams. They could also foster and develop relationships and communication between the services at local level.

 

My Department will continue to explore how these Teams can be established and supported including through engagement with An Garda Síochána, other Government Departments and relevant service providers.

 

In hand with this work, crucial day-to-day policing has continued throughout the pandemic, with a particular emphasis on those vulnerable groups most at risk. While there has been a general and welcome decrease in many categories of crime during the COVID period, some categories have increased such as domestic abuse, drugs offences and cybercrime.

 

Sustained action by An Garda Síochána has continued unabated throughout the pandemic, bringing significant convictions and ongoing seizures of drugs, firearms and ammunition. An Garda Síochána remains committed to tackling the supply of drugs by supporting local communities through various preventative and detection initiatives and engagement with Local and Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Forces; the Garda Youth Diversion Programme and Projects; the Garda Schools Programme; and the existing Joint Policing Committees and Community Policing Fora. 

 

Operation Faoiseamh has meanwhile provided enhanced, proactive support to victims of domestic abuse including proactively reaching out and making contact with previous victims to provide reassurance, support and to offer the assistance of local and specialised resources, as well as renewing the focus on the enforcement of court orders and the prosecution of offenders. I would once again remind the public that travel restrictions do not apply in the case of domestic abuse or when escaping a risk of harm and I strongly encourage anyone who finds themselves or members of their family in this position to contact An Garda Síochána or visit the website stillhere.ie.

 

This work is being supported with unprecedented resources. An Garda Síochána has been allocated €1.952bn in Budget 2021 and there are now some 14,600 Gardaí nationwide, supported by over 3,000 Garda staff. Furthermore, the rollout of the new Garda Operating Model will support the redeployment of Gardaí from non-core duties to frontline policing across the country. 

 

Before concluding I would like to note the work of the former Director of the Probation Service, Vivian Geiran, who I have appointed to carry out a scoping exercise to assess the impact that criminal activity in Drogheda is having on the community and make recommendations for action going forward. Mr Geiran is expected to complete this work in the coming weeks.

 

Likewise, the Dublin City Council North Central Area Committee recently engaged with former Assistant Garda Commissioner Jack Nolan to develop a socio-economic and community plan for the Darndale area. My Department will engage with the findings and recommendations arising from the report to ensure its implementation.

 

In closing, I would like to acknowledge that our vision for community safety is ambitious. It will require sustained commitment and perseverance on the part of Government Departments, State agencies and community and voluntary organisations. However, the realisation of this vision will provide, I believe, a truly holistic support framework for all communities, recognising their unique strengths and responding to their greatest needs. 

 

As Minister I am committed to this work of building stronger and safety communities and I look forward to working with all Deputies to progress this vital work.

 

ENDS