How closure of police bases will hit public confidence in the force
Disappearing PSNI stations and beat officers are problems which cannot be brushed over by glossy PR, argues Henry McDonald
On the day Carrie Fisher died we happened to be at the cinema watching the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One. It was an apposite time to check out this latest spin-off of the George Lucas franchise given that the last word spoken in the film is by a young (circa 1977) CGI remastered Fisher, and that is: "Hope."
Just before the main feature came on screen in the Movie House on Belfast's Dublin Road, there were two slickly produced adverts, both related to local policing and crime.
The first was from the Police Federation's series We Are You, which seeks to humanise policing by showing individual tales of ordinary officers who serve in the PSNI. This one concerned a wife and mum who prepares her child's breakfast before going out to do a day's work in a police uniform. In this case she is helping to clear the road after a suspect explosive device is found in a car that has been vandalised by a brick; a so-called 'come-on' to lure police officers into a trap. While clearing the area the female officer spots a secondary device close to where a child is standing near a rubbish bin, and risking her own life lifts the kid out of the way of danger while calling out a warning about another bomb.
The second advert focused on the purchase of fake and counterfeit goods in Northern Ireland, and how they are generating millions in profits for dozens of organised crime gangs, some with paramilitary connections, others foreign gangsters new to the scene.
The message in both underlines the unique challenges the PSNI and its officers face in terms of crime, paramilitarism and the violent hangover from the Troubles.
Anyone who sees the ads might be perplexed when they compare these ongoing threats to the rapid reduction of the physical policing presence around Northern Ireland, namely the ongoing programme of station closures.
All across Northern Ireland police stations are shutting down with complaints from politicians and public alike about the visible lack of officers on the ground in communities.
Indeed, the 'Sale Agreed' sign has recently gone up on the Ormeau Road police station, which has been lying vacant for years and will now in all likelihood either become another plot of land for private apartments, a car park, or the location of yet another English-owned multiple chain supermarket.
The PSNI announced earlier this month the sell-off of 12 of their 59 police stations, Augnacloy, Willowfield and York Road in Belfast, Ballyclare, Ballynahinch, Castlederg, Cushendall, Maghera, Moira, Portaferry, Tandragree and Warrenpoint
As the Belfast Telegraph has reported, the minutes of the December Policing Board meeting reveal there were 16 station closures in 2016.
In an answer to questions from the board, the Chief Constable did not rule out further closures as part of the PSNI's rationalisation of the policing estate.
Clearly there was always an excessive number of police stations given the legacy of the Troubles, many of which resembled armed military installations rather than centres of community policing. Many still resemble militarised forts, such as the giant station at the bottom of Belfast's Grosvenor Road with its anti-rocket meshing around the exterior.
Rank-and-file officers who have served there will tell you that, given the dissident republican threat, there is still an ongoing need to keep such protective measures in place to save lives.
The existence of these 'super bases', with their blast walls and CCTV cameras in the absence of smaller, community-based stations, hardly encourage an atmosphere of demilitarised policing, which is surely the aim of everyone who supports the power-sharing, post-peace process settlement in Northern Ireland.
Not very far away from Grosvenor Road is Castle Street, the traditional gateway to west Belfast with its black taxis, bustling little shops, pubs and bookies.
On the second Saturday of December a friend of mine was ambling down from the Falls Road into the city centre when he stumbled across something odd and alarming.
On his way to a pub we both imbibe in, this man overheard a mobile phone conversation not far from where Castle Street meets Castle Junction. He heard someone with a thick Eastern European accent barking out orders on the phone. It was all about delivering the money to him in a city centre fast food outlet, and to avoid police patrols at all costs.
My friend tracked the man until he disappeared into the pre-Christmas shopping throng, and then made his way within 10 minutes to Musgrave Street PSNI station, not far from the River Lagan.
According to his version of events, my friend asked to speak to a police officer, telling the clerk on duty that he wanted to report something suspicious. He suggested that the PSNI dispatch a few officers to the fast food joint in question and was prepared to give a description of the individual he came across. He suspected that the incident was related to drug dealing.
My friend claims that he was brushed off and told to contact the Crimestoppers number instead, as it would be quicker than the officer having to fill in paperwork inside the station. When he was given the chance to ring Crimestoppers my friend alleges that the woman on other end of the line told him to go to his nearest police station instead. In response to what he claims was a catch-22 scenario he simply walked out of the station in disgust. It had been his first time in a police station to report a crime - and he claims it will be his last.
The above might be, if it is a wholly accurate account of the day, a one-off, bad experience for a member of the public. However, it underlines surely the importance of having proper points of contact between the ordinary citizen and the PSNI.
The closure of more stations in residential areas only serves to undermine the confidence of men and women like my public-spirited friend who sought to help the police intercept an alleged drug deal going down in Belfast city centre. Otherwise, disillusionment with the PSNI will grow despite all the slickly produced cinema adverts promoting support for policing and building a consensus against the crime lords.