Challenging the gardaí: a personal experience

Date:

The incident - On a Saturday night in July 2008 at about 11pm, I was waiting outside a fast food restaurant in Drumcondra for a friend, when over eight garda vehicles came speeding from a few different directions with their sirens on. They pulled up outside a pub just up the road from where I was. I cycled up to have a look at what was going on. When I got up there, there didn’t seem to be a lot going on. I started to film the line of garda vehicles parked in the centre of the road. I had been filming less than a minute when a guard approached me, demanding that I give him the camera. I put the camera in my pocket and told him it was a public area and I was entitled to film.

He grabbed me by the arm and tried to take the camera from me. I resisted and continued to insist that he’d no right to take the camera. Then another guard grabbed me from the left hand side and reached into my pocket to try and take the camera. At this stage I was being pulled from both sides and my bike was pulled from under me. I’m sure by this stage more guards had got involved and were holding me from behind. I was then shoved up against a van, lightly kneed in the back of the legs and my right arm was twisted up behind my back. While all this was going on, the second guard was still trying to pry the camera from my hand, they were demanding the camera and I was refusing to hand it over.

At one point I remember telling them, if they let go of me I’d delete the footage myself, to which one of them responded ‘No you won’t you smart little prick’, or something along those lines. Eventually the guard on my left got the camera from me and they released me. As I turned around the guards behind me turned their backs and walked away a bit.I turned to the guard who had taken the camera and demanded it back, but he said he didn’t have it. I took out my phone and saved his number into a message. Another guard said I could have my bike back and a few of them chuckled. I went up to the guard who had grabbed me from the right. To see his number I had to move a strap which was covering it, he snapped ‘get your hands off me you little prick’.

I went around approaching other guards and asking them if they’d seen what had just happened and whether or not they thought it was justified. One plain clothes ban-guard commented ‘we don’t wanna be seen on your indymedia’. After a few minutes the guard who had taken my camera came up to me with it in his hand and asked how to delete on it. I told him I didn’t know, as it wasn’t mine. He figured it out, deleted the files and handed it back to me. I questioned him for a minute on whether or not he realized what he’d done was wrong and unjustified. While he wasn’t apologetic, he seemed calm and trying to be fair, but just honestly believed they had the right and justification to go on like that. I walked away a bit shook up and bemused by their whole-hearted belief in their right to rough people up and take/interfere with people's property however they pleased.

The complaint
Later that night in the pub, when I had time to think, I started to get fired up about how wronged I’d been and how I had to do something about it. One of my friends was telling me it was pointless, they always get away with it, but I was adamant I’d make something of it. The next day as I wrote down my account of events in my diary, I was beginning to believe it was pointless. There was no video evidence, no witnesses; it was just my word against theirs. Then another friend who was less skeptical about the state and accountability, spurred me on and said that I had to try, so early that week I went into the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) to give my statement.

The investigating officer who took my statement seemed very open and honest. He told me I was right not to hold my breath, but that I had got a good case for a complaint if I wanted to go ahead. I gave him a copy of my account and then he took a statement. When the statement was done I read back over it and said that I was happy with it. A couple of weeks after I gave my statement I received a letter to say that my complaint was admissible and it had been assigned to the same investigating officer who had took my original statement. Soon afterwards the investigating officer contacted me and asked me to come in and give another statement and to put him in touch with my friend who owned the camera so that he could send the memory card off to see if the footage was retrievable. All this was sorted out over the next few months.

A few months after that I received a letter to say that criminal charges were being brought against the two guards I had identified in my statement, which surprised me as all along I had thought that it would just be dealt with as a disciplinary matter. The investigating officer contacted me to check if there was anytime I wasn’t going to be available over the next couple of months as I would be needed to appear in court as a witness. The next I heard after that was a text from a friend to tell me my name was in the papers in relation to two guards appearing in court. A few days after that I was contacted by the Ombudsman to tell me the date I had to appear in court and I had to go in and sign a notice of summons.

Court
When I arrived in court on the morning the case was heard, I was introduced to the DPP barrister who would be prosecuting on behalf of the state. She told me to be prepared to be thoroughly cross examined and possibly have my character attacked as they would be ‘fighting for their jobs’. I suppose it was naive of me, but I hadn’t realized until then just how serious it was and I was quite taken aback. Even though she said to me that I shouldn’t feel bad about that as it was up to the court, I did, as it was me that had made the complaint and, even though I knew I had been wronged, I didn’t feel comfortable with two people losing their jobs, for acting in a way they had been taught was ok.

When the case was called the first hour was spent dealing with technical arguments against the case going ahead, but the judge ruled against them and the hearing began.  I was called first to give my evidence. Thanks to the fact I had written my memory of the incident down the day afterwards, I was able to recall it quite clearly and was confident in answering any questions the judge had for me. After I gave my account the prosecution asked me a few questions to clarify my account in relation to my statement. When the prosecution was finished, I addressed the judge to tell him I was uncomfortable knowing that the guards’ jobs were on the line and didn’t feel it would be justice for two guards to lose their jobs as scapegoats for what was the mentality of most of the guards who were there that night and of a lot of the ones who weren’t. At this stage I thought it was the judge who would decide if they would be punished by losing their jobs and hadn’t realized, it was policy that a guard with a criminal conviction automatically loses their job, so in order for them not to lose their jobs, he would have had to not give them convictions.

The defence then began to cross examine me; before moving onto attacking my character, he went back and forward on my account of the incident, trying to catch me out, but as I was telling the truth, I was able to answer the questions with confidence. I was somewhat prepared for them to bring up my involvement in grassroots campaigns as I mentioned it in a statement, because I felt not revealing my reason for having an interest in policing could be made to look dishonest and I had nothing to hide anyway. I was also prepared when they brought up my involvement in the Shell to Sea campaign as I had been arrested and convicted for public order offences in relation to protests in Mayo. But, when they brought up the fact that I was involved in Climate Camp in Offaly during the summer, I was caught off guard. I felt intimidated and that my privacy had really been invaded, because I knew of no record of my being involved with Climate Camp, so they must have really been doing their homework.

The prosecution objected to the line of questioning and the judge told the defense to get to the point. It wasn’t until the summary that his point became crystal clear, but it was basically that, although I was well within my rights to engage in ‘legitimate’ protests and I could not be faulted for doing so (engaging in 'legitimate' protests), my involvement in such protests had clearly desensitized me towards garda scenes. Therefore he argued that I was not capable of differentiating between a ‘legitimate protest’ and a normal garda scene and nobody in their right mind would have gone into the ‘middle’ of a scene where they had just seen garda vehicles racing towards. After the cross examination the judge thanked me for my evidence and I was excused.

I was told I could go, but I waited to see the guards’ evidence and the outcome. They both gave false accounts. Both denied grabbing me by the arm, even though they had done so hard enough to leave bruises. They said I had fallen off my bike and landed up against the van. The one who took the camera from me said he had pulled my hand from my pocket by my sleeve and taken the camera from my hand. I don’t know anybody who would not be able to keep a camera from someone who wasn’t even touching them. I know they were lying to try and save their jobs, but it made me a little more comfortable with them losing their jobs, to see them lie through their teeth and basically make me out to be the liar. After hearing the final submissions from both sides, the judge said that he was accepting fully the evidence given by me and not accepting the evidence given by the guards. In mitigation the defence pleaded that the judge deal with it without convictions as it would lead to full job severance. The judge noted that they had not taken the option of pleading guilty before convicting them, fining them and ordering them to pay compensation to me.

The Appeal
Some months later I was contacted again to come in and sign a summons notice for the appeal and I was informed that the appeal of one of the guards would take place in June 2010. When I went to court the prosecution for the DPP was surprised to see me and asked if I had got the message that I didn’t have to come, which I hadn’t. She said I could stay if I wanted, but there was really no need because they weren’t appealing the conviction but only the severity of the sentence, so I left, but had a friend sit in to see how it went.

Later that day my friend rang me to say that it looked like they were probably gonna get off. I went back to hear the judge summarise his findings.

He basically found that they were over all really ‘decent’ guards, who made a mistake in a high pressure situation and if I had just followed the advice that his parents had given him long ago ‘to stay as far away as you can from anything like that’, the incident would have never occurred. Unlike the judge before him, he didn’t take into account the fact that these ‘decent’ guards had a chance to admit guilt, but instead chose to perjure themselves in the stand and he showed them the leniency of the court in giving them suspended sentences and no convictions marked against them. Something about the prosecution felt strange, she wasn’t half as confident as she had been originally and seemed to have forgotten the great argument she made for this being detrimental to the fact that ‘that we live in a democracy’.

At the time that really pissed me off, that I was made out to be at fault and the poor guards, just made an error in the course of duty, but with time to think, I realised it was all just a big joke anyway. They’re all a part of the same system and that system can only be strong so long as they look out for each other. The original conviction was at best a stroke of luck, that the prosecution made a particularly good case on the day, the defense fumbled and the judge was a fair one (or at least on this occasion). At worst it was all contrived to allow the show of justice in the district court, only so things could be ‘put right’ in the circuit court, either way the same result.

Funny, I had the impression of the ombudsman that dealt with my complaint that he was a decent guy and he had always seemed fair and nice, but after that day in court he was outside shaking hands and chatting with other guards, he wouldn’t even look at me, let alone come over to talk to me about what had just happened. I learned afterwards that he had been on two years leave from the guards and went back to take up his high ranking position.

I found the process, very draining and very disempowering. It went on for almost exactly two years, throughout which time I was kept not too well informed. The summonsing was one of the most bizarre things I thought. I’d made a complaint against the guards, I had no say in how the complaint would be dealt with once it was made and when it went to court if I didn’t show up I could be ‘imprisoned or fined’. It’s also messed up that as soon as a complaint is made the guard the complaint is against will be informed of the complainant’s name. I can't imagine this would inspire too many people in fear of further harassment to make a complaint, particularly if they know what little good it’s likely to do in the end.

I guess I’m still glad I went through the whole process, even if it was only part of a larger personal process to find out for myself that it’s all a complete shambles. It’s frustrating, because I’ve since been assaulted and arrested by the guards. I’ve seen others around me abused and the abuse of power seems so engrained within the guards and the whole system that I know I shall continue to witness oppression from the guards. Now I know first hand that the one ‘legitimate’ course of action available only serves to disempower people more. I don’t know what can be done but I know something has to be. I think there’s a serious need for an independent body to deal with complaints about human rights abuses by the guards. People should also be allowed to make anonymous complaints against guards, even if only to help expose their behaviour to people, so that the facade of justice can be smashed, because I don't believe you can expect any justice from a system based on in-justice.

Postscript
Since this case finished in the courts and the author set about making a personal record of it, they have continued to process this and other experiences of engagement with An Garda Síochána, the courts and GSOC. While still maintaining all the above to be true and accurate, they now feel that, having done much self-healing and recovering from trauma, with love and support of friends and family, that for them, it is important to continue to engage with An Garda Síochána, the courts and GSOC, as the only other options would seem to be to completely retreat to the life of a hermit or to learn to turn a blind eye to injustice, neither of which, do they wish or are they willing to do.

While remaining aware that their optimism can lead to disappointment, they also wished to note that they have witnessed glimmers of hope from within the systems of oppression. More and more, they believe that there is still hope that the folk within these systems can start to realise the errors of the system and that “I'm just doing my job” is not a good enough answer. While it's understandable, they are in fear of losing their jobs, it does not negate personal responsibility for actions which harm others.

WORDS: Garda Research Institute


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