Suspended Limerick traffic corps Garda determined to clear his name

Former Garda Representative Association President Frank Thornton.

A GARDA who has been suspended for the past two and half years as part of a probe into alleged ‘squaring away’ of traffic fines, has broken his silence saying his priority is to clear his name.

The Limerick Post understands the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (GNBCI) recently forwarded files on the Garda and four of his colleagues who were also suspended in 2020, to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The suspended Garda said he has been brought to the brink of his mental health over fears he could face charges in connection with the GNBCI’s probe.

The suspended officer, who has not been arrested and has not been charged with any offences, became emotional several times throughout the interview and said the ongoing situation has had a major psychological and financial impact on him and his family.

Recalling the day of his suspension, he said: “I was inside in the office and my traffic inspector came in and asked me if I heard the news, I said ‘no’, and he said ‘you’re suspended as of now, this has gone very serious,”

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“My inspector then told me, ‘I’ve to serve papers on you, hand over your badge and your phone’.”

The Garda said: “I just went home. I don’t know how I drove home.”

“Then it was leaked to the newspapers, the investigation, the word  ‘corruption’,” his voice choking up with emotion.

The past two and half years years have been  “very dark”, particularly Christmas 2020, which he said he and his family should have been celebrating, but instead, were paralysed by fear as to what would happen next.

“It was crazy leading up to our first Christmas at home. It was terrible in the house. I hid away for months, it was shocking.”

“Paranoia was just gone through the roof, I was stressed out of my mind, I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares. I was going to my GP to get medication to sleep but those drugs just make you like a zombie during the day…that went on for about six months.”

He maintains he has always worked honestly within the parameters of the job, which he says included the use of discretion – part of the force’s core policing principles.

He was regularly asked by colleagues of all ranks, including some superior officers, to square away tickets – a practice taught at Garda trading college and which are referred to as “squares” or L7s”.

“That’s right, you’d get cryptic phone calls asking you to come into their office, and then you’d be in the office and they would put it to you they were looking for a square for a friend. You can say no, they ask you nicely but they don’t forget, they don’t forget in the job.”

He recounts an occasion when he stoped a man speeding in a car, and “within minutes” a detective he did not know telephoned him (requesting a square on behalf of the driver) and I just said ‘no, I cant’, and he didn’t take it too well and he said ‘are you fucking serious’ and I said ‘yes’ and I was told ‘for fuck sake, what’s wrong with you’.”

“So, I said ‘I’m sorry I must end the phone-call, I’m still working’, and so, he abused me some more on the phone. That’s what you kind of had to work under.”

He says it feels “surreal” and “absolutely shocking” that he has been placed on suspension as he is adamant he never used his Garda discretion for any type of personal gain.

“I couldn’t believe that I had got in bother in the job because I didn’t bother anyone and I had kept my head down and got on with most people.”

He admits to being “bitter” at how he says he and his colleagues in the Limerick Garda Traffic Corps have been “singled out” by the GNBCI, who are acting on foot of directions from Garda Headquarters.

“I was sickened that my own colleagues were doing this to me, I just couldn’t believe it was happening, I was doing nothing wrong.”

The GNBCI have said their investigation is into “corruption in office” allegations, however the term “corruption” has left a sour taste among many rank and file members.

Frank Thornton, who is currently treasurer and formerly president of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), criticised the Dublin-based investigation unit for what he claimed was a “witch-hunt”.

“It’s going on over two years at an absolute snail’s pace, and these suspended members remain in limbo, out in the wilderness.”

Mr Thornton, a serving Garda attached to Roxboro Road station, says the Limerick Garda Division is being “policed under a cloud of complete and utter uncertainty” as officers are paranoid that if they use discretion when dealing with the public they run the risk of finding themselves on suspension.

Mr Thornton says this has been caused by “a lack of leadership from the very top – not locally – but from the very top nationally”.

“We sought clarity on discretion, sought clarity on ‘squaring’, all we got was a mixed up message regarding discretion.”

Thornton offers that the Garda’s decision-making model, nowadays, “is as airy fairy as you are going to get”.

“It’s not definitive, we want definitive direction and leadership – can you or can you not square a ticket?”

“When you move off from that, then the Commissioner is quoting ‘preference’ – so what is preference, define preference, tell us what preference is.”

“Gardai wonder are they right, or are they wrong, if they use discretion, then what is discretion. Can they give an old lady a chance if she is driving out of a supermarket with no seatbelt on – is that preference because she is elderly?”

Thornton says Garda discretion and the practice of squaring has been “a custom, since the foundation of An Garda Siochana, and is the cornerstone of community policing.”

“To police in Limerick is very difficult right now. Morale is on the floor, I would say it is actually lower than that. It is in the gutter.”

Meanwhile the Garda, who spoke to the Limerick Post on condition of anonymity, says he suspects that he and some of his colleagues have been unfairly caught up in the net of a wider investigation cast by the GNBCI into other serious allegations of corruption, which he says have nothing to do with him.

The suspended Garda claims that he has been “tainted” for being on suspension for two and half years “unless you get an apology in the Dáil or there is some acknowledgement from a new Commissioner that wrongdoing was done, there will always be a cloud over us.”

Maintaining his innocence, he’s says: “To clear my name is the number one priority for me.”

He says that in October 2019, a year prior to his suspension, the GNBCI initiated contact with him, seized his phone and, with their personal firearms on show, began questioning him – a tactic he believes was used to intimidate him.

“It was 100% intimidatory – stuff I would never do in the job myself. I was shown a warrant (for his phone) but I couldn’t take it up off the table, there was a Chief Superintendent, a Superintendent and an Inspector there, they were all dressed in suits standing up with their legs on chairs and showing their guns.”

He claims the GNBCI – which has been primarily responsible for the investigation of organised and serious crime on a national level –   “pretended they had stumbled across something huge in the Limerick Division”.

He agrees with many others in the force who have voiced concern that the Limerick Garda Division has been unfairly targeted by Garda Headquarters, and that if Garda management at a national level “want a strict authoritarian regime where (Gardai) are non-approachable” they should also go outside of Limerick and into every other Garda division in the State.

While he continues to receive a basic salary he says he has lost €25,000 in work allowances, overtime and shift allowances.

While he is grateful to local management for their support he says he has lost faith in management nationally.

He describes the force as “a club” he was not a member of: “You don’t rock the boat, I didn’t rock the boat, but I didn’t want to be anywhere near the boat so then you are not in the club.”

“I had principles that I always worked off of, and that were instilled in me from my father – to be straight and honest.”

The Garda says that following the penalty points sandal, the practice  of senior Garda cancelling points themselves changed to senior officers making requests of traffic members.

He says Garda headquarters “didn’t address the elephant in the room, the phone calls”.

“The phone calls only got worse for traffic members because you had people of rank, who could previously just cancel a ticket and the traffic member couldn’t query it, and now they had to ring you and ask you to withdraw it in court, so it got way worse”.

The suspended Garda says the practice of  “squares” or to use their official term “L7s” are taught to Garda recruits at the Garda Training College.

“You are trained (in it) from the start. Obviously in the training college you were told about ‘squares’ and ‘L7s’ – that’s what they called them, and you’ have lectures in using discretion…It’s the culture.”

“I still have the lecture with ‘the square’ and the ‘L7’ written alongside it and there would have been an inspector or a sergeant giving us that lecture.”

“Tickets would be regarded as insignificant” by some Gardai, however serious infringements have always been frowned upon, such as “if you were ever approached to square dangerous driving or a drunk driver you’d be sacked”.

“I worked off of a system where everyone was treated fairly – the public and people that contacted me within the job, all ranks.”

He sees himself as “collateral damage” in the wider GNBCI investigation into a former superior officer that has failed to establish roots.

He says he remains in limbo as he awaits the DPP’s decision: “I was informed that I will get a phone call on my mobile phone from that investigation unit – the people who have tormented me – and they are either going to say ‘you’re ok’ or ‘we are going to charge you’.”

He admits he is “anxious waiting for that phone call…I’ve no idea when the call is going to come.”

“You try to put it in the back of your head, but it’s there first thing in the morning and last thing at night.”

“I wont know what it is to feel normal again, this is my new normality.”

He has engaged in counselling organised through his Garda welfare officer but he says “I am not going to get any relief from this while I am living it. The only relief you can get from counselling is to deal with the aftermath, so I am sparing sessions, hopefully in the aftermath, to try and get the anger out of me, and to get the hurt out”.

Attending welfare meetings with his fellow suspended colleagues  is also grating: “You’d see other lads there and you’d be shocked looking at them, the effect it has had on them, and maybe they are shocked looking at me too.”

The suspended officer, who has had to respond to others in times of great distress, such as suicide, fatal traffic accidents, murders, says he is now trying to repair fractures in his own family which he says were caused by his suspension.

In a previous response to a query about Garda discretion, a Garda spokesman said the force “enjoys a strong relationship with communities based on our long held and understood tradition of policing by consent and discretion is an important facet of policing”.

He added that the Garda Code of Ethics “recognises the necessity for discretion for operational Gardai”, and that many Gardaí have significant autonomy in their daily duties, as they are required to exercise considerable discretion in fulfilling their responsibilities”.