Letterkenny based garda Gerry Davenport is retiring today, after nearly 32 years on the force. He’s probably one of the best-known faces on the beat, having worked for much of his career in the community policing unit. You may well have met him patrolling the streets and housing estates of Letterkenny on his trusty mountain bike. He’s also very well know for his tireless work with the Community Games - he’s the national president of the organisation, not to mention county chairman.
Culdaff born and reared, Gerry attended Bocan National School and Carndonagh Community School. It was while he was in secondary school that he first got the notion that the life of a garda might be for him. “A garda visited our school as part of a recruiting drive and afterwards two or three of us went down to the station to find out about enrolling. But I didn’t sign up there and then. I remember telling the sergeant that I didn’t want to be a guard, I wanted to be a detective!”
After leaving school, Gerry worked for a time in Daniel Doherty’s bakery in Moville and then Donagh Stores in Carndonagh. Then a new sergeant from Dublin was transferred to Malin and he rented a house off Gerry’s family.
“He sort of put the notion in my head, that I might like to become a guard. So, off I went to Templemore at the age of 23. I would have been slightly older than most of the others there and I think that stood to me, having had a bit of experience in the workplace.”
His first posting was to Monaghan, in May, 1980 and he stayed there for two years. “This was at the height of the Troubles and the hunger strikes at the H-Block. The atmosphere was full of tension, especially when Bobby Sands and the others died. For a newly-qualified guard, it was a real baptism of fire in many ways. Our focus was on border security and paramilitary activities. The day to day work of garda still was done, but it was a far cry from what other guards were doing in towns and villages across Ireland.”
In 1982 Gerry was transferred to Castlefin, and again, found himself spending most of his time manning border checkpoints.
“It was difficult in that you didn’t really get much of a chance to know the local people, apart from the people who crossed the border every day,”
After five years in Castlefin, Gerry was transferred to Letterkenny.
“There would still have been some border security work but it was largely a case of getting back to the ordinary day to day duties of being a garda that you would find in any town. Our focus was mainly on public order and crime prevention. From the early 90s on, there was a massive change in society, especially among the younger people. There were always problems with kids going out and getting drunk but in the early 90s the drug culture was starting to take effect and then, in the late 90s, there was a big move with places selling cheap cocktails and a change in the way young people drank.
“Having said that, you have to remember that the vast majority of people are grand, and it’s no different with young people. Even today, I would say that at least 90% of young people are grand - polite, well-behaved and respectful. But there is always a percentage, maybe around 10%, who will never accept law and order. You’ll always find that there’s a percentage that you will never get through to, no matter what you do.
“A lot of coverage focuses on the negative aspects of young people but there is a lot of good there. I’d like to see more work going into talking more with young offenders and and trying to get them to understand the effects of their actions rather than just prosecuting them.
“There are definitely people out there who benefit from this approach, working with parole officers and doing community service.
“With some offenders, it’s a once-off, spur of the moment kind of thing. If they’re given community service and complete it, you may never see them again.
“For the chronic offender, though, the hard nuts, community service will never work.”
“Fortunately, during my time as guard, there were a number of really good initiatives that were introduced that helped us reach those who could be reached.
“For example, the schools liaison programme, which I was involved in. That was a big help in a lot of ways, reaching children while they’re still young, in national school, and the children benefited as well, because they felt that they could approach you and were less intimidated by the fact that you were a guard.
“In 2000, a new Superintendent came to Letterkenny, Nacie Rice, and he set up the Community Policing Unit, which I was also involved in, along with a few others. This was great, it involved us going back out into the community and working with youth groups and residents associations. You were working with people on the ground, sorting out problems in the estates, nipping things in the bud quietly behind the scenes before they could grow into bigger problems.
“This led on to the mountain bike patrols and I was one of the first of the guards involved in this. I loved that! It got you out of the patrol car and closer to the community. If fact, you could get to situations or places more quickly as well, because you weren’t stuck in traffic. And, of course, it was much less intimidating for members of the public. It was a really successful preventative measure. Problems could be dealt with there and then without people having to go to the station to file formal complaints. It was a straightforward and simple approach that got results.
“Two other iniatives that really worked well were Business Watch and Hospital Watch. These were both schemes where we would make a point of calling by on a regular basis and getting to know everyone and we also set up a confidential texting service. The Chamber of Commerce and local business community really got behind Business Watch, as did the Crime Prevention Officer, Paul Wallace. I can honestly say that any resources that went into these two initiatives were monies well spent. I would like to see these programmes continue, if not expand.”
Gerry first got involved in the Community Games more than 20 years ago, when his children got took part. He coached athletics and helped out with swimming competitions and it went on from there.
“The Community Games really grew in popularity for a long while and then it kind of ebbed a bit, in the years of the Celtic Tiger, when everyone was so busy working and had no time for things like volunteering. But I think the Games are catching on again, as people are kind of getting back to basics.
“The Community Games offer a whole range of activities for children and young people aged 6-16, so it’s something that the whole family gets involved in. It’s built from the local area up, much like the GAA, starting out in the local parish and then having county, province and national structures.
“Of course, like anything, it takes money to run and cuts in finances are definitely putting a strain on us. That’s something we’re going to have to look at and cut our cloth, our programme of activities, accordingly.”
Gerry’s also the chairman of Letterkenny Athletics Club, and has just taken up cycling again.
“I used to be very into cycling but had a bad injury years ago. Being on the mountain bike patrol rekindled my interest in cycling and two years ago I bought a new bike and joined North Pole Cycling Club. They do great work, especially training young people and bringing the Pedal Right cycling safety programme into schools.”
So, as Gerry hands in his uniform and leaves the station for the last time today, what are his plans for retirement? He doesn’t seem like the type to sit on his hands for any length of time.
“Well, to be honest with you, I don’t have much of anything planned. There will be a function later in the month and my wife and I will probably go on a holiday, take it easy for a couple of weeks. Apart from that, I think it will just be getting all the jobs done around the house that need to be done and spending more time with our children and grandchildren!”