AN elite police squad has been formed to tackle housebreakings in the Capital after the number of solved cases plummeted under the single force.
The 47-strong unit will target burglars after the clear-up rate halved under Police Scotland.
The force came under withering attack for disbanding the city’s housebreaking teams, and critics suggested that a “Glasgow-centric” approach had usurped local needs. Now police chiefs have responded by:
• Deploying an unmarked patrol car in break-in hotspots to hunt down burglars;
• Drafting in officers from the west of Scotland when needed to bolster inquiries;
• Fast-tracking forensic analysis for DNA and fingerprints recovered at break-ins;
• Working with prosecutors to hold arrested suspects on remand.
Those caught have been warned they could face up to five years in jail - five times the normal sentence. Similar dedicated squads are being created throughout the country to tackle housebreaking as part of Operation RAC, but the Evening News can reveal that a smaller-scale unit has been running in Edinburgh for two months.
Operation Murgon saw ten officers assembled to pursue housebreakers at the start of October after figures showed only one in five cases was being solved.
Police chiefs said that the team had enjoyed “some success”, catching 57 offenders and increasing the clear-up rate by three per cent.
The command has now dramatically increased the resources available after Edinburgh residents identified housebreaking as their “second biggest priority” in a public consultation.
The move was today welcomed by city MP Mike Crockart, pictured, but he added that it was “disappointing” that the force had taken so long to rectify its mistakes.
Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson said: “It’s true that the solvency rates have declined but this move started about seven or eight weeks ago. That’s when Operation Murgon was set up locally and it had some success. But we’ve been listening to the public in Edinburgh and they named housebreaking as the second-biggest priority for police. What we are able to do as Police Scotland is put in additional resources to local teams as required.
“The unmarked patrol car is fitted with concealed blue lights and will be operational 24 hours a day with specially trained officers. It will patrol in areas where analysis has shown the highest risk of a housebreaking taking place. The officers will be looking for, and responding to, any suspicious activity suggesting a break-in.
“We will be prioritising forensic work to aid investigations of housebreakings.”
The Edinburgh team will be able to call upon additional officers from Police Scotland’s pool of “flexible” officers, usually based in the west, who can be transferred where needed. Another team of 28 officers will probe break-ins in the Lothians and Borders Division. A pilot scheme run in the Capital this summer, which was the first of its kind in Scotland, saw every housebreaker brought to court facing a similar five years in jail.
The scheme has returned for the Christmas period as part of a bid to deter thieves targeting residents during the festive period.
ACC Mawson added: “With the dark nights and Christmas presents in houses, we’re aware that this time of year represents a likely increase in break-ins. Our message to housebreakers is to stay home unless you want to spend Christmas in jail.”
Operation Murgon was launched to target housebreakings and acquisitive crime, and has now been rolled into Operation RAC. As well as 57 arrests, the Murgon team solved 200 crimes and recovered £60,000 of stolen property.
Their efforts were cited as the reason for a three per cent rise in solved break-ins, but the success rate still stood at just 23.1 per cent at the start of this month.
And between April and October, the number of housebreakings soared by eight per cent – from 1112 to 1203 – against the same period last year.
Mr Crockart wrote to Chief Superintendent Mark Williams, Edinburgh’s city commander, shortly after Police Scotland was formed in April to raise concerns over the loss of housebreaking teams.
Today, the Edinburgh West MP said: “It’s welcome that they are now listening to local priorities. It’s disappointing that we had to shout so loud about this before we got some action. They are dealing with the problem of solving housebreakings, but it’s a problem which they created by taking away the specialist teams that they are now reforming. Unfortunately, many victims of housebreaking had to suffer in the intervening months.”
The housebreaking teams, whose detectives were praised for slashing the rate of break-ins, were disbanded under the national framework, with more inquiries being handled by uniformed officers.
The specialists were made part of the city’s three Community Investigation Units, where they still probed break-ins – along with other priorities such as violent and drug crime.
The falling solvency rate sparked criticism that Edinburgh officers were focusing on tactics more associated with Strathclyde, such as stop and searches, and pursuing “diversions” such as closing saunas.
Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell MSP said that the original loss of the housebreaking teams was a case of national priorities “trumping local concerns”.
She said that Operation RAC was a “much needed response to combat the increase in unsolved housebreakings” but it remained to be seen whether it could have the same success as the teams which preceded it.
She added: “The anxiety experienced by elderly people and others who are vulnerable can only increase with the release of these dismal statistics for housebreaking. This is a crime which can have a devastating impact on any home owner.”
‘Not a petty crime’
THE formation of the housebreaking squad was today welcomed by Victim Support Scotland, which highlighted the “devastating” consequences of suffering a break-in.
Spokesman David Sinclair said: “It is welcome news that Police Scotland has formed a specialist unit to try to increase the number of cases being solved.
“We deal with thousands of victims of this type of crime and while some people might think it’s a pettier level of offence, we can assure them that the impact on victims, particularly the elderly, is often devastating and can leave them prisoners in their own home.”