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Why Garda “Stop and Search” quotas are a terrible, awful, idea

On the face of it, new proposals to make the Gardai record the ethnicity, age, and gender of every individual they “stop and search” seem reasonable enough. After all, in the early 2020’s, society is nothing if not obsessively aware of the ever-present danger of systemic racial, or gender based, discrimination. If, for example, there was a situation where 90% of those stopped and searched by Gardai were young black, or traveller, men, then we might reasonably surmise that the Gardai were stopping and searching those people in numbers hugely disproportionate to their share of the population and draw the conclusion that an investigation into potential discrimination might be necessary.

This was the case put (not, it must be said, very well) by Bob Collins, police authority chairman, on Newstalk Breakfast yesterday morning. You can listen to him here, where he was ably challenged by Ciara Kelly.

As so often, with things that Government do, the problem here is not the intent of the new policy. We can, and should, all agree that policies designed to combat, expose, and reduce systemic discrimination are well intentioned, and generally conceived as an attempt to improve society.

The problem is that regularly – and in this case – policies are likely to have unforeseen and negative consequences.

In this instance, what we have here is a solution in search of a problem. Because this data is not presently being recorded, there is no evidence of any kind that the type of systemic discrimination a policy like this is designed to expose is actually happening in the first place. That might seem like a circular argument – because it is – but it is an important one nonetheless. The over-riding message of introducing a measure like this is to say to Gardai “we think, or at least suspect, that you might be institutionally racist”.

That message, of course, is not only likely to be heard by Gardai. It is also likely to be heard by those minority communities the Gardai engage with on a daily basis. When the state institutes a measure like this, it sends messages to everyone. And one of those messages is to say to minority communities “we are putting this policy in place because we worry that the Gardai might be discriminating against you”.

And so, a policy designed to enhance trust actually undermines it, actively.

It is also a policy likely to change Garda behaviour, and the priorities of the Gardai as a police force. When you start surveying the identities of those they stop and search, you are effectively putting in place, whether officially or not, a quota system. Gardai will suddenly become conscious about how their record looks in terms of the number of people from various ethnicities they have stopped and searched.

This is not a conspiracy theory: it is just a perfectly human impulse. Nobody wants even the merest hint that they might be racially discriminatory. Gardai will want the record to show that, in a given year, the number of people they stopped and searched was relatively in proportion to the ethnic makeup of the population as a whole.

Once Gardai become conscious of this figure, and the measuring of it, there are really only three ways they can react:

First, they can ignore it, keep acting as they presently are, and run the risk that the figures make them look bad.

Second, they can consciously worry about the perceived quotas, and decide not to stop and search some people who they otherwise would have stopped and searched, on the basis that it might be seen as “picking on” a particular race.

Third, they can do some “make up the numbers” stops and searches to make the figures look a bit better: Stop and search the occasional 50 year old white woman, for example, just to make sure the figures do not skew too much towards young traveller men, or whatever.

And, of course, nothing that they do will really matter to the outcome. In Ireland, the NGO industry will see to that. The figures released annually, if this policy is enacted, will become another annual NGO press release event. Even the slightest disproportion in the stop and search figures will be presented as evidence of unconscious bias, and NGOs will be lining up for state funding to deliver cultural sensitivity training to front line Gardai.

The whole thing is foolish beyond words.

Nothing that is being proposed here is actually about reducing crime, or improving the effectiveness of the Gardai. What it is about, as usual, is feeding the outrage industry with more fodder, and creating a sense of grievance and victimhood where none currently exists.

It should not proceed. It will proceed, of course. But it absolutely should not.

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