Coronavirus (COVID-19): international policing responses - part 2 - easing of lockdown

This review (part 2) considers international policing approaches and responses during the easing of lockdown (up to 15 June 2020) and future considerations.

Republic of Ireland

Main points

  • Although restrictions on movement remain, Gardaí no longer have the power to enforce them
  • As restrictions are eased there are concerns about Garda ability to manage and encourage social distancing and to prevent large gatherings
  • Gardaí are investigating organisers of a Black Lives Matter protest for breaching restrictions
  • The tone and approach to policing COVID-19 has had a positive impact on community experiences of policing
  • The operation to tackle domestic abuse during the pandemic has been welcomed, including Garda members proactively contacting previous known victims
  • The use of spit-hoods remains a concern for the Policing Authority and human rights groups, although their use has declined over time
  • Gardaí have encountered difficulties recording data on the use of enforcement powers, especially around the protected characteristics of the persons involved

Current situation

On the 08 June the Republic of Ireland moved to phase 2 of 'The Roadmap for Reopening Business and Society'. Phase 2 measures include:

  • Social distancing maintained at all times
  • People can travel within their own county or within 20km if crossing counties
  • Social gatherings of up to six people who are not from the same household permitted outdoors and indoors[109]
  • Organised outdoor exercise, sporting, cultural or social activities of up to 15 people may take place
  • Retail outlets, public libraries, playgrounds and outdoor public amenities can reopen
  • People arriving from outside the island of Ireland (including Irish citizens) are required to complete a Passenger Locator Form and are asked to self-isolate for 14 days
  • Working from home to continue where possible

The Roadmap initially consisted of five phases but this was reduced to four in early June. Phases three and four are due to be implemented on 29 June and 20 July respectively.

Key challenges

Enforcement powers

With the move to Phase 2 of the Roadmap, Gardaí no longer have the power to enforce the restrictions on movement detailed above,[110] resulting in a distinction between actions required by regulations and public health advice. A Garda spokesman said the force will continue to 'encourage and educate' people found travelling outside the radius but confirmed it no longer has powers of arrest. Such powers proved controversial and were heavily criticised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, amongst others. A Department of Health spokeswoman said the Government believed it would not be 'proportionate' to retain criminal sanctions for breaching the movement restrictions.[111] This serves as an example of the concerns raised by the Policing Authority in their latest report (04 June) around the challenges facing Gardaí as restrictions are eased.

Maintaining compliance

The Policing Authority has also raised concerns about the policing of popular public spaces such as parks, beaches and beauty spots, particularly as the country moves through the phases of the Roadmap. Concerns centre around the ability of Gardaí to effectively manage and encourage social distancing whilst dealing with increased crowds and footfall. To date, the policing in these areas has been reported as good with an emphasis on engagement, but as the numbers of people using such spaces increases, concerns have been raised about the ability of Garda members to sustain this approach.[112]

Furthermore, the Policing Authority noted additional concerns about reports of people congregating in other locations such as small parks, sports pitches, etc. There are fears that these areas may receive less policing attention due to smaller groups and that breaches of social distancing or anti-social behaviour could also occur in such locations. While crime has reduced during the pandemic there are concerns about levels of public disorder and incidents of anti-social behaviour involving young people in particular, exacerbated by the closure of schools and many local amenities. As the latter of these begin to reopen, Gardaí could have challenges around preventing people from gathering in shopping centres, play parks etc.

Domestic abuse

Levels of domestic abuse are reported by support organisations and the Garda Síochána as having significantly increased during the course of the pandemic. Whilst on the whole the Gardaí response to such incidents is viewed positively (discussed later), cases of poor practice have been highlighted by the Policing Authority. The main challenges seem to centre on consistency, with one organisation characterising the policing response to domestic abuse and coercive control as 'culturally not there yet'.[113]

Black Lives Matter

In early June thousands of people took part in anti-racism protests across Ireland following the death of George Floyd. This included over 3,000 people who attended a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Dublin on 06 June, defying the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the Minister of Health. A Garda spokeswoman said they had been in contact with protest organisers to make them aware of their obligations under COVID-19 regulations.[114] Protests do not require a permit and therefore cannot be cancelled by Gardaí.

The organisers of a Black Lives Matter protest held in Dublin on 01 June are being investigated by Garda under COVID-19 regulations that prohibit the organising of events. The protest was organised via social media and Gardaí were not notified in advance. Despite attempts by the organisers to adhere to social distancing, the number of participants (approx. 5,000) made this unfeasible. The size of the crowd was also too big for Garda members to disperse.[115] Subsequent protests planned for the following weekend were called off amid fears that organisers could face prosecution under the regulations. The decision to investigate protest organisers has been criticised by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties. With the move to Phase 2, it remains an offence to organise an event attended by more than 15 people.[116]


As noted in Policing Authority reports, Gardaí have experienced difficulties recording and reporting on the use of the emergency powers. As of 30 May, reported figures only include formal enforcement or non-compliance with the regulations and omit incidences where the powers have been used by way of a direction which resulted in compliance. The Authority is continuing to encourage the Garda Commissioner to provide more detailed reporting going forward.[117] The equalities aspect of this is discussed later.

Examples of good and/or innovative practice

Policing tone and approach

Stakeholder feedback to the Policing Authority has highlighted the positive impact Garda Síochána's tone and approach has had on the community's experience of policing. The response to COVID-19 has led to increased visibility of and engagement with Gardaí within communities. This has been credited with contributing towards a greater sense of security in the community. Reference was made to the current policing response as representing a return to 'knowing your local guard' and 'community policing as it used to be'.[118] Community Gardaí are in contact with vulnerable people and their families more so than before.

Policing during COVID-19 has been described as being more empathetic, respectful, focused, caring and engaged, including by those who traditionally hold low confidence in the police such as Travellers. As one Traveller remarked: "It is like nothing we've experienced before - it is as if they have been instructed to treat us as members of the community".[119]

Much of the positive community engagement identified by the Policing Authority reflects the future vision of policing with communities envisaged by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.[120]

Domestic abuse

The Garda Síochána established Operation Faoiseamh to specifically address the risks of domestic abuse during the pandemic. Part of the Operation involves Gardaí proactively contacting and checking-in with previous known victim-survivors of domestic abuse. This approach has been universally welcomed by groups, one organisation characterised it as -'at a time when victims are unable to reach out, it is critical that the Garda Síochána reaches in'. Some organisations believe, the Operation has mitigated to some degree the potential effect of the COVID-19 restrictions on victim's inclination to report or make contact. Victims are telling the various organisations that Gardaí are calling and checking on them and there is a sense that domestic abuse is a priority.[121]

Concerning Operation Faoiseamh as a whole, the vast majority of feedback from service providers is positive, with some reporting specific examples of what they describe as excellent interventions which have resulted in quicker access to safety and protection for victims. There has been evidence of good inter-agency work in this area too and groups have made particular reference to the manner in which the Garda Síochána has worked with their organisations to source information for themselves and victims, and to refer victims on to their services. Furthermore, a number of support organisations described an increased alertness, empathy and appreciation of the situation. In some cases groups stressed that it may not be that the policing actions being taken were different than before, but the manner in which they were discharged was of a different character.

Human Rights and Equalities considerations

Spit hoods

The Garda Síochána's use of spit hoods during the pandemic has been condemned by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) and the Policing Authority expressed concerns over the practice. In a letter to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, the ICCL said the use of hoods could constitute 'inhuman and degrading practice'.[122] They referenced evidence which demonstrates hoods can induce panic, cause distress and trauma, risk suffocation and can exacerbate dangerous situations. Garda Commissioner Harris stressed that the use of hoods was a "…last resort in a continuum of graduated response, in circumstances where there is clear evidence of spitting now or where a member believes there is a clear and tangible threat of spitting posed by the subject."[123] The primary objective of using a hood must be to prevent the spread of infection and not as a restraint.

The latest Gardaí figures covering 8 April to 30 May (inclusive), show there were 88 incidents of spitting and/or coughing against Garda members. During this period spit hoods were used 64 times, including with two persons aged under 18. Weekly figures show both the number of spitting/coughing incidents and the use of spit hoods is reducing.[124] Whilst this was welcomed by the Policing Authority, the use of hoods continues to be a key concern and they will monitor their use for the duration of the pandemic. The Garda Síochána are due to review the policy and use of spit hoods in September 2020.

Equalities data

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) has expressed repeated concerns about the lack of equalities data on the use of Garda enforcement powers. The Garda Síochána provides geographic information on the number of COVID-19 incidents and the use of COVID-19 policing powers in reporting to the Policing Authority, but no data is submitted on the gender, age or of particular note, the ethnicity of the persons involved. In its most recent report (4 June), the Policing Authority noted that no progress has been made on recording ethnicity and that it would continue to encourage the Garda Commissioner to progress this and to interact with the IHREC on the matter.[125]

Resources and prioritisation

There are concerns that policing resources assigned to domestic abuse, vulnerable groups and community engagement will contract after the COVID-19 period. Whilst stakeholders acknowledge that the policing response is the result of an emergency situation, they are hoping the longevity of the improved response can be maintained. Consequently, discussions are increasingly focused on the legacy of this period and the character of policing that might emerge from the pandemic. It is not necessarily about retaining the services currently being provided, as a number of these will no longer be necessary, rather it is about ensuring the culture and approach remains. The Policing Authority has noted that reports of increased confidence and trust resulting from the Gardaí tone of policing are not equated with resourcing levels or deployment and consequently there is cautious optimism that it can be preserved post COVID-19.[126]



Back to top