Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Why police officers on the beat may soon disappear

Budget cuts could sound the death knell for neighbourhood policing but what else can the Chief Constable do, asks Alan Murray

Is the neighbourhood policing ideal about to bite the dust? For the foreseeable future anyway, maybe even for the duration of this Parliament, the PSNI will face stringent, possibly even crippling, budget constraints.

We are told that the £800m pledged by Gordon Brown to oil the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont is as safe as houses.

But with Cabinet Ministers being told to evaluate the impact of a 40% cut to their department budgets only the incautious would predict every penny of that £800m will find its way into our policing budget.

Some of it is dependent on land sales realising estimated values and, operationally, a not too costly summer on our streets.

The PSNI's head of Finance David Best told the Policing Board last week that currently there is no indication that all of the pledged £800m will not be delivered.

But as he was giving that assurance the Chief Constable was spelling out the stark reality of mounting fiscal problems and when Matt Baggott confirms that he has decreed a promotion freeze, never mind a recruitment freeze, then you should begin to grasp the gravity of the budgetary situation he faces. His proposal to engage civilian security staff to guard PSNI bases and property within the policing estate was narrowly defeated by the Policing Board, but defeated nevertheless.

Nationalist representatives on the Board just won't wear it even if it is accompanied by legislation that would subject those recruited to the full rigour of investigations by the Police Ombudsman.

Currently the SDLP and Sinn Fein representatives are not sitting on the fence but decidedly on the other side of it from the Chief Constable.

And it's not only nationalist politicians who are wary of the development. Many would view the deployment of Iraq or Afghanistan-type security arrangements here as a backward and unwelcome step. But what is the alternative if, as the Chief Constable clearly expects, dissident republicans continue to rampage in the south and west of the province in particular. Republicans would tell you that the Continuity IRA is now largely controlled through three or four key individuals linked to an extended 'crime family' in West Belfast who are well known to the PSNI and that the structure is heavily compromised by successful MI5 'conversions'.

The Real IRA, they suggest, numbers no more than four 'key' operatives who have the capacity to construct large firebombs inside cars but not the ability to mount deadly, close-quarter assassinations now that key activists are in custody.

However comforting that analysis may be, the PSNI's estimation of the combined threat posed by CIRA, the Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEierann is more complex and more concerning. It may well be that these groups do not have the capacity to wreak the carnage they would wish, but to underestimate their potential risk and to see a high-profile assassination or a group of his officers killed in a fluke bomb trap, are risks Matt Baggott will not want to take.

So, when the last of the Police Reserve officers depart the PSNI next year and bodies are required to staff the posts they filled, the Chief Constable will have no alternative but to pluck other officers from the streets.

The objective of community, or personal, policing is in essence, labour and time intensive, and without personnel to implement it, nobody should expect it to happen beyond a few model village areas.

The revamping of police contact arrangements towards libraries and other public facilities would raise substantially the risk of casualties if the dissident elements were to directly confront officers dealing with the public in unguarded environments.

Ultimately the devolution of policing means that the decisions on resources and priorities will be made here and when they are made our politicians can't blame anyone else this time around.

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