Crime gangs run riot as under-resourced garda force struggles
Last year saw the worst levels of gangland murders and violence in Dublin and this year is off to an even worse start. Gardai themselves are beginning to say that the spiral of violence is out of control and they can't cope. Jim Cusack reports
Sunday January 24 2010
A FATAl accident in the early hours of last Friday week happened at Balgriffin in north Dublin. The man who died in the single-vehicle accident was Anton Licko, a 26-year-old Slovakian working in Dublin and living in Santry.
The accident happened in the Coolock Garda District. Fatal accidents are complicated cases to deal with and require a large amount of investigation, soaking up a great deal of garda time. The fact that the victim in this case was a foreign national adds considerably to the garda workload as family members have to be contacted via Interpol and the Slovakian police.
Coolock is a station under pressure with high levels of stress from the constant stream of mid-level crime, burglary, robbery and a number of unsolved gangland murders. The start of the year had not been a good time for gardai working the three-relief shift system known as the "Regular". An administrative mistake resulting from the reductions in public sector pay meant that certain allowances due in early January hadn't been paid. As a result, sources say, some gardai, encumbered with debt since Christmas, didn't have the money for petrol to get to work. Many younger gardai in Dublin live in commuter towns around Leinster as they were unable to buy homes in the capital during the years of the property boom.
The fatal road accident was assigned to a junior garda just out of probation. This would have been unheard of years ago when such a case would always have been assigned to a senior garda, experienced in bring ing this kind of case correctly and successfully to, and through, the inquest stage.
Coolock has, on paper, around 230 gardai. However, like all the stations in Dublin, it operates a four-shift system and, generally speaking, there are only about 20 uniformed gardai on duty at any one time. This shift system also means that there are the same number of gardai on duty on a Monday morning, when nothing is happening, as there are on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night when things can often cut up rough.
That night, Friday, January 15, at just after 11.30pm, Coolock gardai received an emergency call about a stabbing at the Hole in the Wall Road in Donaghmede. The victim, Warren O'Connor, 24, a highly respectable young man and former soldier, had been stabbed through the heart.
Warren, a talented footballer, had gone to the assistance of a friend living in the Grattan Wood apartment complex who was having trouble with rowdy neighbours, friends say. He was accompanied by his brother Keith and another friend. An altercation took place inside the complex.
What happened next is still being pieced together but it appears that Warren and his friends were accompanying a pregnant woman and a three-year-old child away from the complex when other men from the party appeared and the altercation renewed. The car Warren was in was rammed as it tried to leave. It was forced to stop and Warren was attacked and, in front of the woman and child, stabbed in the chest. The kitchen knife snapped and the blade was left protruding from his chest. He died at the scene.
As the murder scene spread from the apartment complex along the Hole in the Wall Road to lower Grange Road, uniformed gardai had to be placed at points along the route to guard the lengthy crime scene. An incident room was set up in Coolock and the murder investigation started.
The next night, January 16, Coolock garda station received another emergency call about another murder. This time the victim was 27-year-old Noel Deans, a troubled young man who had been in and out of custody since the age of 14. He had a lengthy record with arrests for knocking down and seriously injuring a garda, possession of heroin and crack cocaine, criminal damage, car theft and assault. If he hadn't been mentally damaged from childhood, his habit of sniffing petrol during his teen years wouldn't have helped induce stability in his life.
He had been drinking in the Priorswood Inn in Priorswood and was walking home to his partner's house off Ferrycarrig Road -- the same area where Warren O'Connor's family live -- when a gunman approached and shot him dead.
Coolock gardai were already tied up in another murder investigation. The first gangland slaying of the year had originated in their district. John Paul 'JP' Joyce, a vicious criminal and member of a heroin distribution gang, had been kidnapped in Coolock on Thursday, January 7, murdered and his body dumped near the airport where it was found two days later.
Joyce, aged 30, was involved in a feud with a gang which has been establishing complete control over the drugs trade in an area stretching from the north inner city to north county Dublin and westwards to Ballymun, Finglas and Blanchardstown. It was responsible for murdering Joyce's brother, Thomas, in June last year and John Paul had vowed revenge. John Paul himself had already survived at least two attempts on his life.
The two murdered Joyce brothers, members of a settled Traveller family from Grove Lane, were notorious in north Dublin. John Paul was imprisoned for a terrible assault on an innocent man at a public house in Rush, Co Dublin on St Patrick's Day, 2006. The man's son had accidentally spilled a drink on someone in Joyce's company. He and another man dragged the man from the pub, beat him to the ground, jumped on him and slammed a door repeatedly on the man's head, causing severe injury. Joyce had only been released from prison last November.
Along with the Joyce and Warren O'Connor murders and the fatal road traffic accident, Coolock garda also had to contend with the abduction of a local shopkeeper, an innocent man, who was taken at gunpoint from a newsagents on Glin Road on January 12 by four men. The man was released unhurt after several hours.
The weight of work on Coolock garda station meant that when Noel Deans was shot they had to shift the investigation over to the neighbouring Clontarf Station.
The Coolock Garda District covers a very large area, with the rundown station being responsible for policing in Coolock, Darndale, Donaghmede, Baldoyle and the new Northern Fringe.
The Dublin Metropolitan Region (DMR) West, which stretches from Finglas right across to Ballyfermot and west to Rathcoole, has the highest incidence of gangland murder and violence in the State and is experiencing unforeseen levels of homicide. Some 760 gardai are stationed in DMR West. But they nearly all work the shift system which means that of that total, no more than a quarter of uniformed gardai are on duty. If you subtract the number of gardai doing office work in stations and on nine to five duties such as "community" policing, there are rarely more than around 150 gardai on duty in this huge division which is experiencing the highest crime rates in the country's history.
Garda management's response appears to be less than certain. When the New Year was heralded in with three gangland murders in Dublin and the clear threat of retaliation over the John Paul Joyce murder, the Garda's armed Emergency Response Unit (ERU) was deployed to carry out checkpoints in the Coolock and Baldoyle area. RTE filmed the ERU in their black paramilitary outfits checking cars.
Whatever the point behind the deployment of the ERU was, it had no effect on stopping the murder, two nights later, of Noel Deans in the same area.
Last week, gardai in the division were angry about the deployment of the ERU, describing it variously as a "stunt", a "PR stunt" and "ridiculous".
One said: "Their [Garda management] strategies have failed, if they ever had any. This moving the ERU around is totally ridiculous. It's for the cameras."
He continued: "The criminals have moved ahead but we're still operating the same old systems that were in place in the Sixties and Seventies. Crime is at epidemic proportions out here. There is combat fatigue in every station. There's the same old demarcation between districts and divisions there was donkeys years ago. But we haven't changed anything. They need to tear up the book and start again."
Others agreed that the response of both Government and Garda management has failed.
Another senior garda pointed out that with the flow of experienced -- and predominantly big male -- gardai leaving, the force, the actual physical attributes of the Garda is declining. And it is also becoming less masculine. He estimated that with the intake of female members in recent years reaching 40 per cent, this will soon result in a police force physically incapable of taking on violent "gougers".
Last year 800 gardai retired, almost all of them men, and it is expected a similarly large number will retire this year, again the vast majority male. The traditional image of the garda -- a tall and physically strong male -- has already begun to change since the then Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue dropped height and physical attribute restrictions in 2001 after years of campaigning, mainly by the Labour Party. These were replaced by a "physical competence test". Previously, under the 1937 Garda appointments regulations, male gardai had to be at least five feet nine inches tall with a chest measurement of at least 37 inches and female gardai had to be at least five feet five inches.
The senior officer said that in many stations in troubled urban areas, sergeants were afraid to send physically slight gardai, whether male or female, out on duties over concerns for their safety. Beat duty has virtually disappeared on evenings and at night. In one DMR West station there have been so many attacks on gardai that patrol cars will only go out in pairs.
One officer in south Dublin said: "Every night on the radio you hear them screaming for back-up in Tallaght. God knows what's going on out there."
Another officer pointed to the changes to the Garda uniform as a potent symbol of what is happening in Irish society. "Ten years ago you had the garda on the beat in his tunic, no baton in sight. Now they are wearing paramilitary uniform, stab vests, pepper sprays and these new batons."
The war against "organised" criminals, detectives say, is being lost. There are more illegal guns in the country than there were at the height of the IRA campaign when it was importing shiploads of weapons from Libya. The Garda Press Office last month issued a statement saying that 2,800 weapons had been recovered under the 'Operation Anvil' in the past three years.
At the end of 2008, gardai in Dublin and police in Belgium intercepted two of the largest shipments of heroin, with a value of more than €20m, within the space of a week. District Drug Unit gardai in Dublin reported in the following weeks that the price of the drug on the streets -- at record low levels -- hadn't gone up at all. That meant that two of the big traffickers operating in this state could take a €10m hit each and still stay in business without putting up their prices.
One of the biggest gangs in Dublin, whose chief enforcer is the figure known in newspapers as "the Don," responsible for over a dozen murders in the past year, took a massive hit over a 1,500 kilo shipment of cocaine seized on board a yacht off Galway in October 2008. The wholesale value of this shipment would be around €50m. The gang is still in business supplying a large area of north Dublin.
Several initiatives and a slew of legislation introduced by Government has had no effect in stemming the rise of murder and other crime. Criminal legislation has boomed to the same extent as crime has boomed in the past two decades. The Government has enacted so much legislation that the book that contained criminal justice legislation relevant to garda investigations is no longer a book but a massive two-volume loose-leaf affair that costs €520.
The force is now encountering its biggest deficit in experience with the exit of hundreds of gardai with huge amounts of operational experience. The largest black hole in management is at the key mid-levels of sergeant and inspector where there are now hundreds of vacancies. This also means that there are not enough at these ranks to help guide younger gardai who make up a growing proportion of the force.
Michael McDowell increased the size of the Garda force from 12,000 to 14,000 when he was Minister for Justice. About 40 per cent of gardai now have less than five years' experience. Probationer gardai are also bound down with large amounts of academic work, all having to complete a 10,000-word essay even though they have already begun working. In stations in high-crime areas this is causing considerable strain for the young gardai, older officers say.
Yes, the force is bigger, but ironically, it is less effective.
The Garda Reserve "initiative" has completely floundered. Despite setting up a management structure of the same size and seniority as the structure in the DMR West, the reserve has attracted only a few hundred members who, one Dublin garda said, "mostly sit around the station".
In the past, Dublin had a chief superintendent in charge of crime in what was called the Central Detective Unit. There was also a chief superintendent in charge of what used to be termed the Murder Squad whose brief was the rest of the country. The two agencies were amalgamated in 1995. There is now, on paper, only one chief in charge of the National Bureau of Crime Investigation (NBCI) to cover the entire country. (At present this job is being filled by the chief superintendent who is also in charge of the Garda National Drug Unit, since the retirement last year of the NBCI's chief superintendent, Noel White).
The chief superintendent at the Crime and Security Section in Garda Headquarters is also acting chief superintendent for the Special Branch whose head also retired last year.
There are vacancies at senior level all over the country. There are no chief supers in Mayo, Sligo (which also has three of its four superintendent positions vacant), Clare, Limerick, Cork city, the Legal Section and Technical Bureau in Headquarters.
The significance and seriousness of this lack of senior experienced officers is that more and more serious crime investigations are not being properly scrutinised. According to senior sources, more and more incomplete files are being sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions who, they say, is sending back more files for "further investigation" than ever before.
Previously it was the job of a senior investigating officer to scrutinise a file to make sure it contained enough proper evidence to sustain a prosecution.
The figures speak for themselves. In 2008 and 2009, there were 36 murders related to gangland activity in Dublin. Charges have been brought in only three cases and as yet there have been no convictions.
Dublin's gangsters may be vicious thugs but they are not stupid. They can see the odds -- less than 10 per cent of getting caught and none if you do the job half right.