Police Governance and Accountability: Challenges and Outlook – Conference Report
Last Thursday and Friday, December 3 and 4, saw an international conference of a very high calibre take place in Limerick (see press coverage in the Irish Times and the Irish Examiner). This conference (previously advertised on this blog here), which focused on Police Governance and Accountability, was organised through the Centre for Criminal Justice in the University of Limerick by a contributor to this blog, Dr. Vicky Conway (formerly of UL, now at Queen’s University Belfast) and Professor Dermot Walsh (UL).
The conference was very well-attended and drew an impressive array of scholars and practitioners researching and working in the area of policing both nationally and internationally. The main plenary presentations were given by Professor Andrew Goldsmith from the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, Professor James Sheptycki from York University in Toronto, Canada and an intriguing turn-and-turn-about final plenary presentation from Dr. Vicky Conway and Professor Dermot Walsh.
Professor Goldsmith discussed the manner in which modern technology, such as mobile phones, digital cameras and the internet (specifically sites like YouTube), are allowing for a new sort of transparency in policing whereby previously invisible police actions can be observed, recorded and shown to the public at large. He gave the example of the death of a Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, following the police use of a taser gun on him in Vancouver airport which was caught on video. Professor Goldsmith used the phrase “sous-veillance” for this type of recording of police actions which comes from beneath and can be contrasted with the more traditional sur-veillance (which comes from the top down). All of this, he suggested, will have an impact on the ability of the police to manage public perceptions of policing, on the demands that are made of oversight agencies, and on the practice of policing in general.
Professor Sheptycki discussed the challenges which exist for transnational policing in the modern world. Employing interesting analogies from the world of art and art history, Professor Sheptycki explored the concept of “constabularly ethics” and sought to ask the question, in the context of European co-operation in policing, “what is good policing?” Professor Sheptycki was particularly interested in “The Raft of the Medusa” by Gericault, which is housed at the Louvre, and depicts a scene of tragedy on a raft set adrift after the wreck of a French naval vessel. Of 147 people aboard the raft, only 15 survived. The painting shows a point of crisis but with the hope of a rescue ship in the distance. Professor Sheptycki suggests that the concept of the “constabulary ethic” may bring hope to the future of transnational policing.
While each of the plenary sessions were thought-provoking, from an Irish perspective the swift overview of the Garda Síochána, from their initial establishment through to current challenges and future possibilities delivered in this third session was particularly interesting. Dr. Conway and Professor Walsh raised many questions about the level of political control of the gardaí provided for under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the potential strengths and weaknesses of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the general secrecy of the Gardaí as an institution. Dr. Conway gave a most insightful description of the work of the Morris Tribunal, the allegations which led to its establishment and the findings of Mr. Justice Morris (all of which are detailed in her forthcoming book “The Blue Wall of Silence: The Morris Tribunal and Police Accountability in Ireland“). Professor Walsh mentioned the lack of statistics on many policing issues in this jurisdiction. He suggested that material such as The Garda Code ought to be made publicly available and was of the opinion that the availability of such material and public knowledge about the training and ethics of the gardaí might in fact increase public confidence in the force.
More than 40 papers were delivered over the course of the two-day event on topics including: juvenile justice and alternative policing; police complaints and accountability; policing of vulnerable groups; new technologies in policing; police culture and decision-making; local policing; policing and constitutional values; policing and the law of evidence; and many other related matters. Rights issues which arose included: incursions on the right to silence; the protection of the suspect right to pre-trial legal advice; victims’ rights; privacy rights and the use of DNA; the consequences of police abuse of power and the exclsuion of evidence; children’s rights; privacy rights and the use of CCTV; and many more.
This was a most successful and informative conference which allowed for transnational discussions at the macro level on the changing nature of modern policing and the challenges for the investigation of crime in a globalised world, as well as debates and comparisons on the details of policing powers and experiences at a micro level in different jurisdictions.