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Around 60 police, crime teams, CID, and air support... all to nail the "Divis Hoods"

By Jonathan McCambridge

The police officer leading the fightback against the scourge of car hijackings has insisted that his team is hurting the criminal gangs which are terrorising the streets of Belfast.

Since the start of the year there have been 23 hijackings or attempted hijackings across the city, sparking criticism of PSNI efforts to tackle the problem. A criminal gang called The Divis Hoods is believed to be responsible for the majority of the attacks.

Women have been targeted in many of the incidents during which they are forced into giving up their vehicles. In some cases they have been threatened with knives, hammers or wheelbraces.

Inspector Norman Haslett heads up Operation Ruscio — the police response to the growing crime trend. The Belfast Telegraph joined officers on patrol on Saturday night to find out how they are tackling the criminal gangs that are terrorising our streets.

The operation sees up to 60 officers on patrol every night of the week. It is led by the PSNI Autocrime team with back-up from local crime teams, tactical support groups, neighbourhood policing teams, roads policing, CID and air support. It is high visibility and designed to reassure the public who have been alarmed by the spate of crimes — many of which are carried out in the city centre during daylight hours.

But Inspector Haslett insists the operation is also pro-active and operates on intelligence and local knowledge to make arrests.

“We are putting the most skilled people onto the ground, and they have a good knowledge of the local criminals and the local area. Since the operation started in the second week of January we have made 20 arrests in relation to car hijackings and there have been eight charges,” he said.

“While we have been carrying out the operation we have also made a total of 79 arrests for all offences. We are hurting the criminals for a wide range of offences. We have made a definite impact on this issue.

“We like to think that whatever happens, we are ready for them. We are making them think before they try anything.”

The operation sees police targeting 102 ‘priority offenders’ across Belfast. Their activities are closely monitored by the PSNI reducing offenders unit who pass intelligence on to officers on the ground.

But police have faced criticism for allowing repeat offenders back onto the streets just hours after they have been arrested over hijackings. Sinn Fein has claimed that legal loopholes are making it difficult for police to keep offenders locked up.

“At the start of this process we arrested one juvenile and he was given bail. He was arrested again this week and he is now in custody and that is a big deal for somebody of that age,” Inspector Haslett explained.

“We have to follow the evidence. We understand that the public get frustrated by this — we get frustrated too. Some cases are straightforward and we can charge them straightaway, but in others we have to work to translate intelligence into evidence. We have to follow due process.

“But even if they are released the investigations are still ongoing. They are still on our radar and we will get them back in court.”

Police are also appealing for increased public assistance to deal with carjackings. They have recently launched a dedicated inquiry line which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The number is 0800 028 1111. Callers can remain anonymous.

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