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Home > Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality debate. Effects of gangland crime: discussion.

[Oireachtas] Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality debate. Effects of gangland crime: discussion. (18 Feb 2015)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/joint_...


Chairman: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton On behalf of the joint committee, I thank all the witnesses for coming here today. The purpose of this meeting is to continue our work on, and have an engagement concerning, the impact and effects of gangland crime on communities, and possible solutions to it. Deputy Finian McGrath has agreed to act as rapporteur and to produce a report for the committee, which will be forwarded to the Minister when our work has been completed.

 

  I welcome Ms Marie Metcalfe and thank her for being here. She is representing the Community Policing Forum for the north east inner city. I also thank Dr. Johnny Connolly from the Health Research Board for attending the committee. Assistant Commissioner John Twomey is also welcome, as is Detective Chief Superintendent John O'Driscoll. Also attending the committee are Detective Chief Superintendent Pádraig Kennedy, Detective Superintendent Stephen Courage and Detective Inspector Maura Walsh. I thank the Garda Síochána representatives for giving their time and expertise to assist us with this matter.

 

  The format we employ here is that we will invite witnesses to make opening statements of approximately five minutes each. We will than have a question-and-answer session with members. Members may come and go, depending on business in the Houses. I will start with Ms Metcalfe, if she does not mind. If she is ready, she can commence with her five-minute opening statement. If not, we can ask somebody else to start if she wants to wait. Which would she prefer?

 

Ms Marie Metcalfe: I would prefer to wait in order to get the gist of what we are talking about.

 

Chairman: Information on David Stanton That is no problem at all. I call on Dr. Connolly to start us off.

 

Dr. Johnny Connolly: I thank the Chairman for inviting me to attend the joint committee. I have sent the committee a large, recently published report entitled Illicit Drug Markets in Ireland, as well as an article on that and some implications from that study. I will highlight some of the key points that are coming from that evidence. We are trying to ensure that policy is informed by the evidence.

 

 There has been fairly consistent evidence of growing levels of violence associated with the illicit drug market in Ireland since around 2005. While violence has always had a certain role to play within illicit drugs markets, the levels and nature of the violence has changed. In particular, the profile of victims of what we call in the literature "systemic crime" - that is, crime associated with drug markets - has also changed. One of the main things that has changed is the impact on families of drug use. Previously, while there might have been violence between those buying and selling drugs, it would have been confined to those within the market and would not have spilled out beyond that to have an impact on the families of people caught up in debt. However, this is something that has been seen increasingly since 2005. As a consequence, the family support network and the Garda National Drugs Unit established a pilot scheme and then an initiative to respond to that. There is a broad community impact, but it is also a hidden impact and something that is not really on the radar.

 

 Something else that has changed is the impact on community workers. People working in the drugs field were generally seen as untouchable in that they were doing good work in the community. We have seen evidence of a broader impact on the local community. We have also seen increased youth involvement in the illicit drug trade, which has been identified since 2005, in both the supply and running of drugs.

 

 The drug market study showed that a lot of the violence is associated with drug debt. In recent years, just as credit dried up in the legal economy, so it did in the illicit economy. As a result, the families of such people are trying find ways to repay those debts.

 

 One of the main impacts on particular communities in which drug markets develop is a fear of reprisal from those involved in the drugs trade. It is not something that generally impacts on the broader society. When people are asked in national surveys if they have been victims of crime and they say "Yes," there is a range of reasons they do not report it to the Garda Síochána. Generally, however, fear of reprisal is not one of them. In studies I have done and in the most recent survey of 800 people in four drug markets around the country, fear of reprisal was the main reason cited by people who do not engage with the Garda. It is a hidden harm and needs to be investigated.

 

 There is also a strong reluctance to engage in community safety or policing initiatives. That is a major factor in terms of any attempt to engage with local communities. I wish to highlight a number of policy implications. When I was invited to examine the concept of gangland crime, I did not understand the definition. We need to broaden our conceptual understanding of the drug-crime relationship, and the nature of drug markets and how they differ across different communities and localities, as well as the nature of drug law enforcement, supply control and its impact, both routine and specialised. We need to talk not about individuals in the drug trade but about the thousands of people who are caught up in drug dealing networks. It is increasingly referred to in the literature as a network. As regards focusing on individuals, there is nothing an individual can bring to the drug trade that somebody else cannot bring within a couple of months if one person is taken out of circulation. We need to think about it as a market, so that where there is demand there will be supply.

 

 We also need to appreciate the challenges of drug law enforcement. In drug-related crime - the Garda will explain this with more expertise - there is generally not an individual victim, and neither is there a crime scene. It is an intelligence-driven form of policing and, like the market itself, it is a hidden form of policing. It is often judged on seizures or arrests, but that does not account for all the other activity that goes on. However, we do not really know a lot about that; it is information that needs to be examined and researched.

 

 We need to appreciate the complex interaction between drug markets and what I call their host communities. Drug markets bring a lot of crime and disturbance to many local communities, but they also bring cheap goods. For lack of a better term, they also bring employment to a lot of young people who are surrounded by unemployment. They have a complex interaction with the local communities in which they develop, so any response needs to recognise that.

 

 The needs of communities should also be appreciated. In the research I conducted, people living in communities where drug markets tend to develop all identified the main reasons for drug use and drug-related problems as being high unemployment, boredom and a lack of facilities for young people. However, when I asked what was needed in response, an overwhelming majority said they needed more gardaí on the streets. The cause and response are very different, and a different level of understanding is required as to why that is so. Communities demand more gardaí as a primary response and they also demand more amenities for local youth. We need to provide community safety structures that can win local support. Ms Metcalfe will talk about the north inner city community policing forum, which is the model for community safety structures.

 

 Given the fear of reprisal, in order to get people engaged we should focus on the priorities from a community perspective. In the study I conducted, for example, while people said they would be reluctant to engage with gardaí and report drug-related behaviour to them, when asked if they would report the involvement of young people in drug dealing to gardaí, the positive response was quite high. That was something people were willing to engage with. Or else, while they might not report young people dealing to the gardaí, they would report it to their parents or others in the community. Those are the things that people see as a priority.

 

 Resources are required to provide community safety structures, as well as innovation to displace drug economies. For example, one issue that has always been there is asset seizure and the call for those assets to be returned to the communities they came from.     When one looks at a drugs market as an illicit economy, what one is looking at are ways of displacing that economy. In another country, I saw a local community centre funded from the proceeds of drug dealing. That had a significant impact from a community perspective in several ways. It was a positive influence on young people rather than the negative influence of the local dealer with the flashy car or clothes.

 

 On broadening our understanding, policy responses need to be based, particularly in this highly emotive area, on empirical research. This is an area completely bereft of original empirical research, despite the resources that go into it. Research programmes at EU level and the development of ways to understand drug-related crime, illicit drugs markets and their structures, organisations and impact, as well as supply reduction activity, must be supported. Research that can identify the hidden harms associated with this invisible problem must also be supported. That is challenging research, as it requires not only national surveys but locally based research. Systems such as PULSE should be used to capture information on cases that do not lead to prosecution. We need to appreciate the limits of interventions. Not all drugs markets are equally harmful in terms of their impact on communities. Some involve open drug dealing while some might involve the open dealing of crack. Some are more violent while some involve young people. Given the challenges of law enforcement, in that very few drugs are seized and very few drug-dealing interactions will be intercepted, there is a hugely challenging environment. Given the demand for drugs, there needs to be a selective focus in areas of greatest harm.

 

 We also need to appreciate the unintended consequences of drug laws and their enforcement. Successful drug seizures can actually lead to greater market disruption. If a drug seizure is made, a debt still has to be paid which can lead to new people being brought into the drugs trade, debts being called in and increased levels of violence. We need to look at the positive as well as the negative consequences of different interventions. There is ten-year mandatory sentencing legislation for people caught in possession of €12,500 worth of drugs. The Law Reform Commission recently concluded that this has had unintended consequences in that the market has adapted and, simply, what it has led to is an increase in the number of people in prison who are low down the scale in the drugs market, such as couriers from impoverished countries and people caught up in debt. The market will adapt to initiatives such as that.

 

 Certain responses can lead to markets having a more violent impact. Strong law enforcement can lead to risk-tolerant people coming to the fore in a drugs market as distinct from risk-averse people. Research is finding that this can contribute to greater levels of violence.

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