Baggott must allay fears over policing rural areas
The Chief Constable says closing police stations makes operational sense. Rural communities will take more persuading, says Alan Murray
Chief Constable Matt Baggott's recommendation to close 34 of the PSNI's remaining 83 stations has generated the expected response from communities and public representatives.
Understandably, those in rural areas most fear the loss of a local base and the more remote the area and the more sparsely populated it is, the greater the fear of isolation and crime.
Senior PSNI officers suggest that the strategy of having fewer bases means less return visits to bases during the course of a policing shift and makes operational sense.
Indeed it does. More officers patrolling, stopping, noting, inquiring and helping and a clearly identifiable policing presence on the streets is what most citizens want to see.
Regrettably, though, what we perceive most of the time is officers in vehicles cruising along en route to some destination or other.
And when miscreants in the community continue to wreak misery on the majority of that community, then, inevitably, the average punter opines that all the PSNI do is drive around in their cars all day. Of course, that is neither true nor reflective of what police officers do each day, but when it is reported that an elderly person was advised to "ring the Housing Executive" after she contacted the PSNI to report an attempt by two strangers to gain admittance to her property, then the disparaging chorus of "useless" echoes.
Closing bases will, at least, avoid the need to guard empty buildings against terrorist attack. It has been suggested that, if the 32 bases earmarked for closure were, indeed, closed from April 2012, then citizens living around those bases would be little more than seven miles from the next nearest station.
For those able to maintain a vehicle, then a 10-minute drive to another police base may not be a hardship. But for the citizen who relies on a bicycle as their mode of transport and the non-able bodied and the elderly, a seven-mile trek will prove a daunting venture.
How the PSNI proposes to assist those who have to make a witness statement to police in these circumstances is a factor that also needs to be addressed.
Of course, Matt Baggott could wheel out the two mobile police stations he has mothballed in the west of the province to provide that crucial reassuring temporary presence when a station is closed.
The problem to date, though, with that idea is that fear of terrorist attack upon the soft-skinned mobile station units has greatly restricted their deployment.
Their use at specific times in perhaps 'safer' areas would afford those who need to speak directly with officers, especially to complete or deposit documents, the opportunity to do so locally - the local bus doesn't always stop outside the police station.
Alarmingly, perhaps, it was intimated last week by the PSNI that the closure of bases would only "help keep" 600 officers on the streets come next April.
Savings of £135m are needed to meet the new budget and, with a police estate 70% larger than that of any other UK force of comparable size, the case for reducing the PSNI's bricks and mortar appears unchallengeable. Though, as with the inevitable closure of hospitals, local communities and local politicians will rail against the proposals.
Assurances of better performance on the ground from officers less preoccupied with paperwork and station-based requirements will be forthcoming from the PSNI hierarchy next spring.
It's when the miscreants are tearing up and down the High Street just 100 yards from the closed police station that the judgment will be made on those assurances.