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Big Read: Are gardaí equipped to tackle Drogheda gun crime?

It was like a Wild West scene on a busy street in the centre of Drogheda in recent days when a young man jumped out of a car and fired off a gun just outside a supermarket.

A 36-year-old innocent man was blasted in the leg and shoulder, as children walked by.

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The shooting in the late afternoon was linked to a feud that has raged for months in the town.

Local election candidate Jeff Rudd was just stuffing election leaflets into a letter box on a canvass 50 yards away when he heard gunfire.

He looked up and spotted the man discharging his last shot from an automatic pistol before jumping into the back of a red car.

“It was in a place where you would have people of all ages coming and going all the time – near schools, the hospital and church. I have never seen anything like it,” he tells Review.

“What is happening in the town I love is just beyond craziness.”

The only small mercy is that has nobody has yet been killed in the Drogheda gang warfare.

Gardaí in the area are investigating more than 70 recent incidents – including shootings, beatings and firebomb attacks.

There have been seven firebomb attacks and an attempted gun murder in the past fortnight. The situation in Drogheda and sudden outbreaks of gang violence in other locations have again prompted questions about whether gardaí are sufficiently equipped to deal with criminals who are armed to the teeth – and show no compunction about using their weapons.

Rank-and-file gardaí this week called for 24-hour Armed Support Units to be set up in all 28 Garda divisions in order to deal with gun crime.

At the moment, the armed units are organised on a regional basis, and there is a widespread feeling in the force that there is insufficient back-up for guards on the beat. It is not just the spate of violence in Drogheda that has caused alarm.

Officers are reported to have particular concerns about the wave of ATM robberies in the border area and their capability to respond to them.

It was reported that one of the ATM gangs was also involved in the murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe during a raid at the Lordship Credit Union in 2013.

Donohoe was one of two members of the force to have been shot dead in Louth during this decade. In 2015, Garda Tony Golden was gunned down by dissident republican Adrian Crevan Mackin outside the village of Omeath.

He had gone alone, unarmed and without backup to help a woman who had been the victim of domestic violence.

He was one of many gardaí who have travelled alone into dangerous situations with little protection.

Different philosophy

Like Britain, Ireland is unusual in not having an armed police force. Across continental Europe it is not unusual to see pistols dangling in the holsters of police officers – and the US police rely so heavily on guns that they manage to shoot dead around 1,000 people every year.

Here, we have clung to a different philosophy based on the idea of policing by consent.

The first Garda Commissioner, Michael Staines, set the template in the 1920s when he declared: “The Garda Síochána will succeed not by force of arms but on their moral authority as servants of the Irish people.”

But should we now dismiss this pious sentiment as the unrealistic ideal of a bygone age when gangs are shooting each other in broad daylight on residential streets – with school children walking close by?

In the face of such violence, it is only natural that rank-and-file gardaí are reluctant to confront seasoned criminals with nothing more than a baton and pepper spray.

But arming a police force is not a simple matter and it will not necessarily lead to a reduction in violence, according to Dr James Windle, criminologist at University College Cork.

Windle says he can empathise with gardaí who have to do an extremely dangerous and stressful job.

“You can understand why gardaí in dangerous situations would want to know that there is someone there to back them up,” says Windle.

He says that in some cases where there is a spate of violent incidents, such as those in Drogheda, the community may be asking for an armed police presence.

“There are situations where people need gardaí on the streets,” says the criminologist.

Long term, however, Windle believes arming gardaí would not have much impact on gangland violence.

“Some of the evidence suggests that there can be a ratchet effect, where it can lead to the increased arming of criminals and they are more likely to use weapons. That is a potential threat to gardaí.”

At present only a small number of gardaí are armed. Detectives and bodyguards protecting senior politicians commonly have weapons.

There are Armed Support Units in each region and these are called up during serious incidents.

For the most serious incidents, the force also has a centralised Emergency Response Unit – and armed officers from this unit have been deployed on the streets of Drogheda in recent days.

Practical difficulties

Armed detectives often carry semi-automatic pistols, while the intervention units such as the Emergency Response Unit carry Heckler & Koch sub-machine guns.

There is no great clamour within the gardaí for the entire Garda force to be armed.

It may be the norm in many countries across Europe including France, Spain and Germany, but it would present huge practical difficulties.

The entire force would have to be trained in the use of guns to limit, as far as possible, the dangers to officers themselves and the public. Inevitably, when a police force is armed, there are accidents. Supplying guns and the training infrastructure would also be expensive.

Dr James Windle says it could also affect the force’s current hard-earned reputation for good community relations.

While arming the entire force is unlikely to happen, there is a widespread belief that rank-and-file gardaí need more effective armed support as they try to tackle criminal gangs. Michael Carty, former commander of the Emergency Response Unit, says: “The threats that they are facing now are not like the threats of the past, and the days when gardaí could face serious situations unarmed are gone.

“Some of these criminals are hyped on drugs and they couldn’t care less about shooting anyone.

“I still believe that the entire police force should not be armed, but the numbers in the armed support units fall far short of what is required. The numbers need to be increased substantially, and there is a greater need for specialisation.”

The Garda Representative Association believes there is now a need to have Armed Support Units in all 28 Garda divisions rather than one armed team in each region.

Although he advocates a substantial increase in the number of armed gardaí, Michael Carty does not believe they should be spread across every division.

“We don’t want a collection of individual gardaí who are armed to the teeth. They have to be under tight control, and trained as a cohesive unit relying on teamwork. They should still be centralised in the regions, but they could fan out to different areas.

Border units

“Constant training is absolutely vital in order to avoid accidents. There should be firing ranges in each region and they should do some tactical training. These units should be trained in search, surveillance and hostage taking.”

There is widespread agreement that the Armed Support Unit is too thinly spread in the border region covering an area from Donegal to Louth. Michael Carty says there could three armed units along the border.

The typical frontline garda who is called to a violent incident is much less well equipped than his counterparts in Britain and elsewhere.

While the garda has to rely on his extendable baton for self-defence, Taser stun guns are becoming standard issue weapons for London’s Metropolitan Police.

These can fire dart electrodes at criminals, which incapacitate them through electric shocks.

In Dublin and across the country, they are only used by specialist armed gardaí.

Taser guns are of course controversial, and their widespread use is opposed by groups such as Amnesty International.

They are also expensive with an estimated cost of about €1,000, with extra costs for cartridges and batteries.

Tasers would not be much use in tackling gun crime, but the GRA has advocated making them more widely available to frontline gardaí as they try to cope with violent incidents.

In Britain, only about 5pc of police carry weapons, but the threat of terrorism has made guns on law enforcement officers increasingly visible, particularly at airports and landmark locations such as Westminster. ­Criminologist Dr James Windle says there has been a gradual arming of police in the UK in recent years, and that comes with its own dangers.

In 2011, the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in a minicab in Tottenham in London led to uproar.

Although an inquest later showed that he had been lawfully killed, the shooting led to a conflagration of rioting across London that lasted for days.

While sudden upsurges of violence such as the recent trouble in Drogheda and the Hutch-Kinahan feud in Dublin require a heavy armed police presence, community trust is, if anything, more important in tackling the gangs, according to Dr Windle.

“You have to have community involvement and trust in order to police areas where there is gangland violence. If people are afraid of gardaí, they are less likely to come forward as witnesses.

“There is a danger that an armed police force loses legitimacy.”

If the State moves increasingly towards arming gardaí, the authorities will want to avoid the situation that has developed in the United States, where the large number of police shootings has poisoned relations with communities in certain areas. If gardaí are eventually armed they may prefer to take their cue from Germany.

In Germany, police are armed, but are trained to avoid using their weapons in all but exceptional circumstances. It is an article of faith that officers go out of their way not to shoot.

Dr Windle says the effective response of police offers only part of the solution in areas that are scarred by violence.

He refers to research showing three causes of localised violence: social exclusion; lack of meaningful employment and easy access to firearms.

For the moment in Drogheda, local people are relieved that there is a greater presence of gardaí on the streets after months of mayhem.

Tense atmosphere

“There has been a febrile and tense atmosphere and this feud has been bubbling under the surface for months,” says the Drogheda senator Gerald Nash. “What we need is a Limerick-style, no-holds-barred approach to the problem.”

While a heavy armed presence by gardaí may offer short-term reassurance, there were other factors that helped to alleviate Limerick’s crime problems and put up to 60 criminals behind bars.

“A lot of it was down to gathering good intelligence about some of the key actors, disrupting their networks, and fragmenting them so that they lost their authority,” says criminologist Dr Windle.

“In the case of Limerick, you had some very determined guards, and they put in huge resources – and there was a programme of regeneration,” says Michael Carty, former commander of the Emergency Response Unit.

Arming the gardaí will not offer any kind of panacea for the problem of gangland crime, but the Commissioner Drew Harris will be keen to ensure that his officers have sufficient armed support as they are confronted with life-threatening situations.

As the old saying goes, you should never bring a knife to a gunfight. And there is no reason why gardaí should be expected to confront gangsters carrying machine guns with little more than an extended baton.

 

Police and guns across Europe

UK

While the common-or-garden bobby on the beat does not carry a gun, armed police are usually close at hand on patrol. It is estimated that fewer than 5pc of police officers are armed. Usually they carry Tasers, batons and canisters of mace spray. Increasingly armed officers are seen in busy tourist areas and in airports.

Germany

Police carry weapons but are discouraged from firing their guns if at all possible during a rigorous training process that takes 130 weeks. Federal police officers in Germany carry a range of equipment that could include a Heckler & Koch pistol, a baton and an irritant spray. They also use Heckler & Koch sub-machine guns.

Spain

In Spain, the three different police forces have a huge cache of weapons between them. According to a recent report on Euronews.com, the National Police own 38,274 firearms; the Local Police 37,810; and the Guardia Civil 65,842. This is said to be enough to arm over 80pc of all police officers. Favoured weapons include a the Franchi SPS-350 shotgun and the HK-G36 assault rifle.

Italy

The two main police forces, the Polizia, directed by the Ministry of the Interior, and the Carabinieri, the military police, carry guns, usually Beretta 9 calibre semi-automatic pistols. In some cities, police have begun using Tasers in order to prevent lethal use of force.

France

The National Police, responsible for urban areas, and the more rural Gendarmerie carry a Sig-Sauer SP 2022 pistol. Officers could use other weapons depending on the severity of the operation.

As in Britain, French police have reacted to the recent terrorist attacks by acquiring more guns. Police were recently given €250m to buy sub-machine guns, assault rifles and non-lethal ‘Flash Ball’ guns.

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