Sunday, 30 March 2014

'Adjusting the Police Occupational Landscape: The Case of An Garda Síochána'

This month The Differential Association found itself on the cutting edge of topicality with its chosen reading material, ‘Adjusting the Police Occupational Landscape: The Case of An Garda Síochána’ by Sarah Charman and Donal P Corcoran.

Ireland’s police service, An Garda Síochána, has had a less than ideal year so far. Amid allegations that penalty points were removed from certain favoured citizens, as well as the further burden of an organisation struggling with the concept of whistle-blowing, further development went on to suggest that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission offices had been bugged. This last matter is currently the subject of an inquiry. However, throughout, questions have emerged on the reactions to the revelations, as much as the substance themselves. The Minister for Justice, and the Garda Commissioner reacted negatively both to the whistle-blowing as well as the suggestion that the organisation was a natural suspect in the bugging debacle. This week the Garda Commissioner resigned in the wake of yet more revelations that certain garda stations were recording incoming and out-going telephone calls, something which has a potential knock-on effect for criminal trials.

The article by Charman and Corcoran therefore presented an opportunity to engage with research that had lately taken the temperature of the organisation. In their article, Charman and Corcoran seek to explore ‘the culture of a police force under organisational reform’.

Their methodology takes the form of 38 interviews with garda who were street-level garda and not above the rank of sergeant, this range was selected to avoid possible ‘management-speak'. The interviews are conducted by Corcoran, as practitioner/researcher: ‘it was felt that this might enhance the extent to which respondents would state actual opinions and might mitigate the occasional formality of the interview process’ (7). This is an interview methodology with interesting ethical and methodological considerations, while participants may be more willing to open up, the status of the researcher as an 'insider' poses challenging questions about independence and the effect of researcher bias.

The authors argue that the persistent interest in ethnographies of police culture suggests the area has hit saturation point and they claim that the term ‘police culture’ now stands in as short-hand for a set of stereotypes.

One of these stereotypes, for example, is that there is a gap between formal rules and informal practices. The authors also cite other common understandings of police culture, including a focus on action and adventure, the glamorisation of violence, an ‘us versus them’ mentality, as well as institutional sexism and racism, and a conservative, suspicious, black and white view of the world. These findings stem from socialisation as police officers learn how to navigate their roles within their institutions.

Charman and Corcoran contend that this script is so well-worn that there is a danger that information which does not fit may be disregarded or simply not seen. Surely, they argue, some progress has been made since police ethnographies first revealed these findings? Their article is a response to Peter Manning’s (2012) contention that An Garda Síochána is resistant to change and that any change which has occurred has been superficial.

The authors seek to examine attitudes to the reforms implemented following the Morris Tribunal during which worrying levels of misconduct, unlawful activity and ‘closing of the ranks’ was noted. While the authors remark that ‘culture’ was not a term used explicitly by Morris his belief that those specific guards he investigated were not aberrant suggests a cultural issue (for a comprehensive account of this period see Vicky Conway’s ‘The Blue Wall of Silence’).

The reforms included Joint Policing Committees (to tie gardaí back into local concerns), recruitment reforms, Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission as an independent body to investigate complaints about gardaí.

The participants welcomed the new recruiting practices which sought to ensure a representative organisation. Arguably though, this means of questioning may tell us little about the problems of institutional discrimination.

Regarding the ‘blue wall of silence’ many of the interviewees reported that there was no shame in ‘grassing’ a colleague, but only when directly asked. The authors highlight that there was no discussion of personal responsibility and that it seemed this would play no part in volunteering information on the misconduct of another officer. The participants pointed to the role GSOC arguing that its establishment had meant covering for a colleague was no longer worth it.

When asked if whistle-blowing was an acceptable practice the most common answer seemed to be ‘it depends’. The factors involved in decision-making were the seriousness of the misconduct, the politics of the division and the potential consequences. The authors conclude that this suggests value-judgements on a colleague’s behaviour could lead to bad behaviour becoming normalised.

The authors conclude that their research revealed ‘significant changes as well as limited continuities’ (14). Overall they argue that the adaptability of police officers has been underestimated, and they conclude further that the cultural shift called for by the Morris Tribunal report is evident within the rank-and-file members of An Garda Síochána. The key issue flagged was solidarity and the continuing negative view of the practice of whistle-blowing. This would appear to have been confirmed by the recent unfolding news stories, as questions are asked again about solidarity versus personal responsibility.

This month’s blog was written by Lynsey Black.

The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.

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