Belfast Telegraph

Why we all must engage if we're to drive crime from our streets

All this week our top writers tackle the subjects that matter to you. Crime Correspondent Deborah McAleese asks: Is the Chief Constable's community policing ethos getting the political support it needs?

I have been a victim of crime. So has my husband, my brother, several of my friends and some of my neighbours. There will be very few people reading this who have not been affected on some level by crime and anti-social behaviour.

But when it reaches extreme levels - when women are dragged from their cars by hijackers, the elderly beaten and robbed in their own homes, a mother and daughter killed in an arson attack - people look to the police for reassurance that they will be kept safe and the criminals caught.

With the widespread closure of police stations and fewer officers than we have ever had, how can the PSNI encourage confidence in policing?

The general view from the public is that they would like to see more police on the beat. The Chief Constable has already freed up more than 700 officers from desk-bound duties and put them back on the frontline.

Matt Baggott has said station closures will result in even more officers out on the streets.

Investment in new technology has meant that police are spending longer on patrol every day because they can file reports on the go.

In spite of this and the fact that, statistically, our neighbourhoods are relatively safe, fear of crime still exists. While that fear may not be rational, it can still have a negative impact on people's lives.

During the spree of carjackings in Belfast earlier this year, a friend refused to come into the city for fear of being attacked. Another was terrified to walk to her car from her office every night, so she took the bus.

The PSNI could have prevented this fear of crime had they been quicker to react publicly.

Initially, they attempted to deal with the crime wave covertly. It was not until the scale of public concern escalated drastically that a special police unit was set up and officers flooded the streets of Belfast. The very visible reaction helped reassure the public and warn the perpetrators.

Within a matter of weeks, the number of carjackings had reduced and several prolific offenders were arrested.

But it is not just about flooding the streets with police officers. It is also about how they engage with the public when they are out there.

Unfortunately it is not always a positive experience. I know of a householder who recently caught a burglar in his home. He called for assistance from police, but officers got lost on their way there.

In another case I know of, a pensioner who contacted the PSNI to say she was concerned someone may have broken into her sister's home was advised to go and check it out herself.

I also recently spoke to a teacher who claimed her parents' east Belfast home had been raided by police, but it turned out to be the wrong address.

Annoyed by the upset caused to her parents, the woman said she had spent hours attempting to speak to somebody within the PSNI, but to no avail.

"I phoned the main switchboard as I didn't know who to contact. I was told to contact the Police Ombudsman. All I wanted was for someone to talk to me and explain what went wrong and to apologise," she said.

These incidents are by no means a regular occurrence, but cases like them deflect from the good work that is going on in communities. Who can forget the bravery of the officer in Lurgan who was stabbed trying to protect children during a domestic dispute? Or the young recruit who was seriously injured trying to save a member of the public from a savage dog in north Belfast?

I have witnessed a lot of examples of positive community engagement. I love seeing uniformed officers walking into a local coffee shop for a quick latte and chat with the staff and customers.

We will never see an increase in the number of police officers in Northern Ireland. Given the financial climate, we are lucky to have the number that we do. It is about making the best of the resources that we have.

Although there are many areas in which the PSNI could do better, I am confident that Matt Baggott is committed to his vision of a "personal, professional and protective" police service.

But Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster, has warned that the onus should not just be on the PSNI to make communities safer and develop relationships.

"It is a two-way relationship. We want the police to be active participants in the community, but that requires the community to engage with the police," he says.

Matt Baggott's vision goes way beyond policing. He wants politicians working to make communities safer through anti-poverty, health and education initiatives.

He believes that effective policing begins with bringing Northern Ireland's divided communities together. But can he encourage enough community and political support to achieve this?

"The Chief Constable's ethos and approach to policing in Northern Ireland is still relatively in its infancy. It is almost a watching brief," adds Dr Byrne.

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