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Burglar caught on camera - but photos didn't interest the PSNI, until the Belfast Telegraph called

By Deborah McAleese

Published 10/04/2015

The sequence of pictures snapped by Malachi O’Doherty of a man acting suspiciously at a flat where a burglary took place
The sequence of pictures snapped by Malachi O’Doherty of a man acting suspiciously at a flat where a burglary took place
The sequence of pictures snapped by Malachi O’Doherty of a man acting suspiciously at a flat where a burglary took place
The sequence of pictures snapped by Malachi O’Doherty of a man acting suspiciously at a flat where a burglary took place

The police response to a burglary in which the culprit was caught on camera has been branded as 'shameful'.

The PSNI are under pressure to explain why it took them almost a week to pick up vital photographic evidence which could have solved the crime.

Officers probing a break-in at an apartment in south Belfast on Saturday were offered photographs, taken by an eye-witness, of the suspect as he fled the scene.

Almost a week after the burglary, however, police had still not called for the photographs.

Officers finally asked for the images yesterday afternoon - after the Belfast Telegraph contacted them to enquire about why they had not requested them.

Domestic burglaries in the south Belfast area over a six- month period last year increased by more than 50% to 392. Only 7% of the crimes were resolved during that period, according to recent police statistics. In their local policing plan, South Belfast PSNI insisted that tackling burglaries was one of the top priorities for officers.

However, officers are now under pressure to explain why they did not secure the photographic evidence from Saturday's burglary in the city's popular Stranmillis area.

"It is rather shocking and alarming. The police are always appealing to the public for help and here evidence is offered to them on a plate and they didn't follow up on it. It is shameful," Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said.

The DUP man warned: "This is going to cause huge damage to public confidence. It is going to have to be investigated. It is just alarming."

Photographs of the suspected burglar leaving the scene were taken by writer Malachi O'Doherty who was out for a walk at the time.

The images show the crime suspect, dressed in a blue hooded jumper and wearing black gloves, leaving the apartment complex in the Stranmillis Reach Area moments after the burglar alarm went off. Another photograph shows him running from the scene.

When police arrived at the scene Mr O'Doherty showed one of the officer's the pictures.

The officer asked if she could collect the images from him so Mr O'Doherty provided his phone number and address.

Mr O'Doherty was only called by police yesterday afternoon, after the Belfast Telegraph contacted them.

SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said this "makes a nonsense of constant requests from the PSNI for witnesses to come forward with information."

"Somebody must be held accountable for this failure. This is sloppy police work and is not acceptable. This sort of thing is very damaging to public confidence in the PSNI," Mrs Kelly added.

PSNI Inspector Ray Shaw said enquiries into the burglary have continued throughout the week and police are awaiting forensic examination results of the scene.

He added: "The attending officer has made contact with the witness and we have arranged to collect the images (today).

"I understand that every crime has an impact on the victim, their family and the community as a whole, however please be assured that police in south Belfast are committed to keeping people safe as they go about their everyday lives.

"We will continue to address the issue of burglary and raise awareness of crime prevention. However, the community can also play a part by looking out for neighbours, reviewing household security, making sure that doors and windows are kept locked and reporting any suspicious activity to police."

In a bid to reduce burglaries in the Balmoral area police have said high visibility patrols have been increased and specific anti-burglary operations planned.

I said I had pictures of a man who might be a burglar. I thought the officer would ask for the camera's memory card, but she didn't

Malachi O'Doherty tells of the afternoon he chanced upon a flat break-in while out taking photographs around Belfast. However, events took a surprising turn when he offered the evidence to police

Malachi O'Doherty
Malachi O'Doherty

I was walking along the River Lagan last Saturday afternoon, taking photographs. I was using a telephoto lens with manual focusing on a camera it wasn't designed for, a micro four thirds. That's a detail that will matter to some people reading this. It was hard to get a sharp image.

I tried to frame a picture around a set of steps into the river, viewed from the other side. I had walked on the southern side, past Dunnes Stores and the Annadale flats.

It wasn't going to be a picture that would hang over my mantelpiece, but you never know. Good pictures are often accidents. The accident this time was that I was pointing the camera across the river, at the steps, oblivious to a man in a blue hoodie, standing by the gate to a flats complex just adjacent to Botanic Gardens.

Slowly, I connected him in my mind to the burglar alarm I could hear. Normally you don't pay much heed to burglar alarms. It was about 5.40pm, broad daylight, and if the man hadn't started running, pulling off his gloves and removing his hood, then even if I had been right beside him I might not have suspected anything.

But I kept photographing him and the results are embarrassingly poor, but still, there he is. His mother will recognise him. So will his friends. He will recognise himself. And if the police have had past dealings with him, they will likely know who he is too.

He ran a little way along the embankment to stop at a large silver car and to chat to people in the car before getting in himself and the car drove off.

I looked at my pictures in the viewing screen on the camera. They weren't great.

I carried on my walk, passed over the bridge near the Lyric Theatre and walked along the side of the river where all this had happened and, sure enough, a police car had now pulled up at the flats.

Two police officers were at the front door of the first floor flat where the alarm had rung from. I called to them. I tried to open the gate so that I could get to them but it was locked.

In my first picture of the sequence, the man in the blue hoodie is inside this gate.

One of the police officers, a woman, came down to speak to me. I said I had pictures of a man who might be the burglar and I showed her them.

She took my name and my date of birth. I'm not sure why she wanted that. Together we studied the images. I apologised for them being a bit blurred but we agreed that you could tell from them what the man was wearing, the colour and cut of his hair, his general body build and his height. You could make fairly good stab at working out the shape of his nose and chin.

I'm not sure she was that confident. I enlarged the pictures on the camera screen but said they might look sharper on a computer. She noted down the colour of the hoodie and some other pointers. We discussed an apparent flash image on his trousers which, appears to be the three parallel lines of the Adidas brand though blurred by movement.

The police woman asked me if I would be willing to help and let the police see the pictures. I thought she might ask me to part with the memory card in the camera there and then but she didn't. I said I would let her have the pictures after I had uploaded them to my computer and I gave her my address, expecting a call.

And that, for me, is the odd bit of it; the call never came until the intervention of the Belfast Telegraph.

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Cuts hit our capability to fight crime, says police chief

Six months ago the PSNI's Chief Constable warned that severe budget cuts were going to fundamentally change the delivery of policing in Northern Ireland.

George Hamilton said that policing will now have to "focus on where vulnerability and need is greatest".

Multi-million pound reductions to the policing budget mean that the strength of the PSNI will drop to 6,770 by April next year because there is no money to replace retiring officers - this is 200 officers below the minimum needed for a "resilient PSNI".

A cut to the PSNI's overtime budget of £6.2m will also see officers spending 300,000 less hours on the street.

In November, Mr Hamilton warned the Policing Board in a confidential briefing that due to the cuts there will now be a "reduced ability to keep people safe, prevent and detect crime".

It is not known if the PSNI's delay in obtaining images of a burglary suspect in south Belfast was related to these new pressures on the service.

"We cannot accept that crimes will not be followed up to the highest of standards because of pressures on the PSNI's budget. If the public do not feel the PSNI is doing all they can to prevent and detect crime there will be an impact on public confidence," SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said.

Despite there being less money, resources and manpower, the public still expect and deserve a policing service that will protect them from crime and detect perpetrators of crime.

Crime rates in Northern Ireland rose by over 3% last year, with 105,234 recorded crimes. Just over a quarter of crimes were resolved.

Domestic burglaries is one of the biggest problems for all policing districts in the province with more than 5,800 recorded in the past year. Less than 9% resulted in police charges, cautions or discretionary disposals.

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