Gruesome crime scenes taking toll on gardai
Cases put at risk as stress-related leave causes delays in vital evidence
By JIM CUSACK
Sunday January 03 2010
Stress-related illness caused by garda forensics officers attending gruesome crime scenes and other staffing issues are contributing to historic delays in processing evidence in major investigations, according to gardai.
The Garda Technical Bureau and its civilian counterpart, the Forensic Science Laboratory, have been under pressure in recent decades but gardai say the delays are now putting many investigations in jeopardy.
Sources say it is taking up to six months to analyse drug samples and by the time results return the momentum in investigations is being lost. "There's so much happening in the meantime, you have moved on," one said.
Another source said there were now record delays in investigation files being returned from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), which is also under severe logistical pressures.
In the past two weeks the DPP received two major files under the new anti-gang legislation, which makes it an offence to be a member of an organised crime gang.
These files, involving gangs in counties Limerick and Dublin, are receiving prioritised attention because of the high profile given to the legislation, which was introduced in the summer by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern.
There is a precedent in similar legislation involving terrorist groups, which has been successfully used by the Special Detective Unit, including the case against leading dissident Michael McKevitt from Dundalk, Co Louth, who was sentenced to 20 years in 2003 on charges of directing a terrorist organisation.
Detectives involved in investigating 'ordinary' crime are having a less successful time and are facing record levels of murder, attempted murder and other serious offences associated with organised crime.
The problems facing the technical examiners who are often key to investigations was highlighted in the latest issue of Garda Review, the Garda Representative Association's (GRA) monthly publication.
An article by detective Garda Pat Ennis, the GRA representative in Garda Headquarters, describes problems in the technical bureau with lack of staff and management and of pressures from dealing with often horrific crime scenes.
Other detectives agree. One described a 2006 gangland murder in the city that horrified even the most hardened detectives. The torture and mutilation of victim Eddie McCabe, 21, is said to have been the worst case ever encountered in the city. "We're used to a fellow being shot but this was out of this world," one said.
In his Garda Review article, Gda Ennis says: "In recent years there has been an increase in absenteeism in the Garda Technical Bureau as a result of work-related stress. In some instances that has been directly attributed to repeated exposure to gruesome crime scenes."
He called for greater consideration particularly through "critical incident debriefing" for officers who have encountered particularly bad scenes. He referred to "inadequacies" in the current system of helping stressed officers.
"The GRA has sought a greater level of buy-in from all local supervisors and management in the whole area of welfare and hopes that the commissioner's current review of the Garda Employee Assistance Service will address inadequacies in the Technical Bureau in this area."
Gda Ennis pointed out that a number of key positions in the bureau are currently vacant.
The same sentiment is being expressed by gardai in almost every section of the force, which has seen a record 800 senior staff retire in 2009 and a freeze on promotions leaving hundreds of staff "acting up" and a considerable amount of job sharing at senior level.
The loss of several chief superintendents is causing headaches at present for management as one of their functions is to draw up and publish annual divisional "policing plans", detailing crime levels and the garda's strategies to respond. According to senior sources some of the policing plan reports for 2009-2010 will be "bits and pieces of previous reports cobbled together -- there's no one there to do them".
- JIM CUSACK