Belfast Telegraph

Crime reduction hard job in hostile environment

By Alan Murray

No surprise, then, that the numbers arrested for suspicion of involvement in terrorist offences here has risen. The home secretary Theresa May has confirmed the obvious trend that has developed in Northern Ireland over the last three years.

The key question is: can the PSNI cope and even win the war of attrition against the various dissident republican groups bent on warping another generation of young nationalists and also perform their normal policing duties.

To its credit, the PSNI held the line on the streets of Ardoyne over the Twelfth. A single line of officers, male and female, repelled the masked adolescents of the job-deprived streets of north Belfast for three nights until reason, in the form of Bobby Storey and other prominent republicans, manifested itself.

It isn't the duty roster that many of the idealistic, university educated recruits to the PSNI and others, who migrated from existing career paths, flocked to experience.

But to their great credit, their line did not break last week. In spite of 83 of their colleagues being injured, these officers will feel that they can deal with what is thrown at them on the streets.

We are a community still emerging from conflict with, inevitably, a paramilitary rump which clings to gang fraternity and status - not because of ideological analysis, but because of what it can bring to their own personal coffers.

But we are in different times with a numerically diminished police service and Army back-up restricted to ordnance disposal.

The Policing Board set the chief constable a target of reducing recorded crimes by 4.6% to 100,000 incidents by 2010/2011, but the figure for last year showed a drop of just 0.9%.

With statistics for serious crime showing an increase of 18.3% and more citizens concluding that the PSNI is not doing a good enough job, Matt Baggott may reason that the task set is an impossible one.

When you are compelled to deploy 500 officers on to the streets of one tiny patch of ground for three nights, then inevitably you do not have 500 officers to deploy to neighbourhood policing or to assist detectives in the fight against serious organised crime.

In addition, between April and June this year there were 266 PSNI officers absent from duty for more than 28 days as a result of sickness.

A total of 72 of those officers were absent for at least 90 consecutive days by the end date in the same quarter, June 30.

Demanding a reduction in the incidence of recorded crime against the backdrop of increasing terrorist incidents, is the demanding of the impossible from the chief constable and his officers.

More officers on the streets might help reduce the incidence of crimes committed, but if the primary police responsibility is to preserve life, which it is, and 500 officers are required for three nights to police a square mile of streets in north Belfast, then a greater presence elsewhere can't be achieved.

Better evidence-gathering, more cogent prosecution files presented to the Public Prosecution Service and ultimately a greater percentage of convictions and deterrent sentences in the courts will result in the persistent criminals - and especially the violent offenders - committing fewer recordable crimes.

The co-ordination and relationship between the PSNI and the PPS is not as effective as it needs to be and there is an impression within the community that our new crop of police officers would rather mediate than prosecute.

The chief constable, the Policing Board and the justice minister need to address these shortcomings as a matter of urgency.

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