Units a welcome addition to Force

February 12th, 2022 5:10 PM

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THIS week the subject of gender-based violence has once more been to the fore.

Just hours after an investigative report on the issue on national television, came news of another random attack on a woman – this time in a Co Cork town. And, as in the horrific case of Ashling Murphy, the attack was in broad daylight close to the centre of a busy town.

This comes on the back of several attacks on women in the weeks since the death of Ashling. Prior to this week’s latest incident, and since Ashling’s murder, we have had attacks on women reported in Cork city, in Kilkenny, in Sligo, and in Dublin city centre.

It is a frightening tally but it is also likely to be just a tiny percentage of actual attacks – given most women will not report an attack.

One of the reasons for the lack of reporting of these crimes is due to the perception that many women have regarding the treatment they might receive if they come forward.

Of course there are many other reasons, too – not least of all fear of retribution by the perpetrator, and also fear of getting involved in what is increasingly seen as an unsympathetic judicial system.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee has this week said she will make reform of the system a priority.

But we have heard that before, and her task is not an enviable one.

Look at the court pages of any national newspaper and you will see a litany of sentences that appear very lenient for brutal attacks on women, and in many instances, by their own partners.

But one of the positive advances in the justice system in recent years has been the introduction of Protective Services Units by An Garda Siochána. The West Cork unit, as detailed in this week’s Southern Star, was opened in 2020 in Dunmanway Garda Station.

To say such an introduction is a major step forward in the policing of sensitive crimes is not an understatement – it is a giant leap. The initiative was driven by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris who, in his former role as an assistant chief constable with the PSNI, took responsibility for the management of sex offenders and the introduction of public protection units.

Now that the PSUs are up and running across the country and the gardaí investigating these cases have been specifically trained to deal with sensitive issues, it is difficult to understand why they took so long to be established.

Prior to the PSUs, a garda could find themselves investigating road traffic offences in the morning and reports of rape or serious sexual assault in the afternoon. It was certainly not an ideal situation.

Now, if a report of a sensitive issue, ranging from sexual crimes, human trafficking, child abuse to domestic abuse and more, comes to a garda’s notice, either verbally or by a report to a garda station or phone line, it can be referred immediately to the division’s PSU.

A team at the PSU will review the details and decide whether it is a straightforward case that needs standard methods of investigation – in which case the local garda station can retrieve it – or it needs specially-trained and upskilled gardaí to take it on. These specialist gardaí will have undergone training in dealing with both victims and perpetrators, and will not only pursue a conviction, but can also help with victim support before and after any court appearances. Among their remit is also enhanced collaboration with the Child and Family Agency Tusla, to safeguard children.

It is a very welcome addition to our policing methods and one that simply could not have come too soon. If anything, given this country’s treatment of children and women, one may be inclined to wonder why we had to wait until 2022 for these special units.

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