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The Blue Wall of Silence: Police Shootings in the US and Garda Accountability in Ireland

Robert BloomUS Professor talks about change in the Garda Síochána 

Having recently completed a research fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub in collaboration with the School of Law, Professor Robert Bloom (Boston College) spoke during his stay about the external agencies moving the Garda Síochána to change its culture and break the ‘blue wall of silence.’ He is particularly interested in the closed culture which leads members of the Garda Síochána and other police forces to isolate whistle-blowers and hide wrongdoing.

Research Fellowship

A law professor for over 35 years, Professor Bloom teaches criminal procedure at Boston College Law School. His study in the area of criminal procedure has led him to focus closely on the operations of the police. ‘We’ve had lots of problems with the police in the U.S. One case in Chicago particularly concerned me; it was a young man called Laquan McDonald. He was shot sixteen times. A video of the shooting came out thirteen months afterwards and showed the police officer shooting McDonald in the back.’ Professor Bloom describes how the most troubling part of this story other than the death of a young man, was that the police officers who witnessed the event fabricated (as indicated by the video) their account. This blind allegiance to each other in the police force is referred as the ‘blue wall of silence.’

The ‘blue wall of silence’ also exists in Ireland, says Professor Bloom, as he moves his attention to the study of the external bodies which have been set up in recent years to promote transparency and change within An Garda Síochána. Professor Bloom is interested in seeing how effective these institutions are (or not) in breaking down these barriers. He explains that any problems within the Garda Síochána have traditionally led to the establishment of an investigation headed by a former justice of the Irish Supreme Court. One such investigation involved a whistle blower which attracted widespread media interest, ‘providing the politicians with an incentive to take action’.  The Morris Commission in 2005 created the position of the Garda Ombudsman which was subsequently set up in 2007. This external agency is tasked with taking civilian complaints and other problems within the Garda and investigating these issues. There is also the Garda Inspectorate which was established in 2006. It is comprised of a small team of police officers from around the world. The current Head of the Unit, Robert K. Olsen has worked with different police forces throughout the U.S. Furthermore, in January 2016 an independent Policing Authority was established. The Police Authority holds public meetings with the Garda Commissioner and her staff, one of which Professor Bloom attended during his fellowship.

Culture of Secrecy

According to Professor Bloom, ‘police officers are somewhat isolated. Their social context, aside from their family, is usually limited to other police officers. They have a lot of discretion especially at the lower levels and they have a great deal of authority to influence things; they can arrest somebody, or they can decide not to arrest somebody and they face a lot of danger. This mix of isolation, authority and danger creates an extremely closed culture.’

This culture of secrecy permeates to the upper levels of hierarchy within the police force. ‘The supervisors, sergeants, and superintendents all come from that closed culture. There’s a lack of transparency and a closed identity which is very hard to overcome.’

The Garda whistle-blower scandal in Ireland reminds us of a culture which does not accept ‘ratting’ or ‘informing’. Professor Bloom notes that he once wrote a book on ‘Ratting’. ‘Informing was a really big deal in the Troubles. The IRA assassinated a lot of people who they even suspected were ‘rats’. Even now, if you are within an organisation such as An Garda Síochána and you see wrongdoing, to report it is a really hard thing to do. It’s not seen as acceptable behaviour.’ This type of ‘blind loyalty’, as Professor Bloom describes it, leads to a failure of police officers to testify against corrupt colleagues.

Sargent Maurice McCabe, having witnessed some serious misconduct in investigations, corruption and the fixing of tickets within the Garda Síochána, became one of the most well-known whistle-blowers, in what would become a media frenzy, leading to the resignation of Justice Minister Alan Shatter, and the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. Of equal concern, alongside the assertions of corruption, was the subsequent alleged mis-treatment of the Sargent McCabe and other whistle-blowers which led to a political outcry for accountability within the organisation. ‘There are people within the Garda who see things that are really not right and they get isolated.’

Reform

Professor Robert BloomProfessor Bloom comments on whether there is any evidence that new agencies monitoring the Garda Síochána are actually generating change. He notes that a number of suggestions coming from the inspectorate have been ignored. The Ombudsman spends a lot of time on small cases, Professor Blooms says; ‘most of the time when it recommends public prosecution it doesn’t seem to happen.’  However having met with many of these external agencies on his recent research fellowship, he is optimistic about the opportunity for change through the Police Authority, headed by Josephine Feely, formerly of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners.

Returning to focus on the U.S., Professor Bloom explains the differences between the two jurisdictions and discusses how efforts to monitor the police forces in the U.S. have been thwarted by the police unions who abhor outside agencies looking into their activity. ‘Unlike Ireland which has one police force (Garda), in the U.S there are many police forces which makes widespread monitoring and change very difficult

In both the U.S and in Ireland, investigation of both police forces have tended to remain internal, with ‘reluctance to allow for outside entities to openly investigate complaints.’ The most recent moves to allow external agencies in is promising according to Professor Bloom, who for his current fellowship project thinks it more worthwhile to focus on how the identities of the Gardai contribute to the difficulty in formulating policies to better control the police. ‘The Oireacthas Justice, Equality and Defence Committee has outlined its vision for reform of the Garda. I will look at these reforms and see whether they are possible given the identities of the Garda.’

Next steps

During his recent fellowship, Professor Bloom sought to find out about the training of the Garda, visiting the training evaluators at the University of Limerick. It is part of his plans for a future visit to evaluate the training curriculum used by the Garda Síochána.

‘In addition to the training, recruitment is an important factor in addressing the Blue Wall of Silence’, Professor Bloom says. He is keen to see how the Police Authority, working with the Inspectorate and the Ombudsman can institute change during this time, and that all the pieces of reform will begin to produce results in changing the culture of the Garda.


Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895