SHERIFFS are being invited to troubled north Edinburgh to hear first-hand about the devastating effects of crime on residents.
It is hoped the move will put pressure on courts to enforce harsher sentences on a small band of teenage repeat offenders who blight the area.
A core gang of young tearaways are suspected of housebreakings, joyriding, stealing cars and terrorising an otherwise close-knit local community.
The council-led Stronger North initiative, set up after a brutal attack on West Pilton takeaway owner Jie Yu, said it was making progress in tackling the problem.
Extra police resources have been brought into the area, additional CCTV cameras have been fitted and antisocial housing issues have been tackled.
A youth forum has also been formed to empower younger residents of the area, while locals have been quick to sign up to litter-picks and clear-ups.
The varied action plan has led to a “sustained drop” in the level of antisocial behaviour in the community.
But some locals have criticised the courts and Children’s Reporter systems, claiming they do not give harsh enough punishments to young offenders who quickly return to the streets to re-offend.
In a bold move, the Stronger North team has invited city sheriffs to visit trouble-spots and speak to families affected by crime.
It is hoped Sheriff Principal Mhairi Stephen and her colleagues will agree to the field trip, and officials will meet in the coming weeks to take the plans forward.
There are also calls for the Scottish Court Service to enlist a Procurator Fiscal solely to deal with youth crime.
Councillor Cammy Day, the city’s community safety leader, said: “I understand that the police are catching many people, and some of these young people have lots of charges against them.
“One theft of a motorbike is maybe not [seen] as serious but when someone has a list as long as your arm, the justice system has to listen to the concerns and take a more proactive stance on certain individuals.”
It is hoped the visit would comprise a group of sheriffs walking around Muirhouse, West Pilton and Drylaw with senior police and community leaders, before meeting local families to hear about the impact of crime.
Cllr Day said the visit would also give sheriffs an opportunity to explain issues around the justice system.
“Anyone who has had their car damaged or house broken into wants someone locked up for it the next day,” he said.
“But the reality is, that’s not going to happen. It will be helpful for a sheriff to explain that. It’s a learning curve for both sides.”
“Progressive” talks are also under way with court officials about improving a fast-track system to ensure repeat young offenders are dealt with as swiftly and appropriately as possible via the Children’s Hearing system.
Cllr Day added: “We have feedback from the community saying it’s not fast enough. There are ongoing discussions happening with the court and Procurator Fiscal service.
“One question was, ‘would they put a fiscal aside to deal with these particular issues?’. Locally and within the city there’s a real keenness to get something done.”
Inspector David Happs said Stronger North was having a positive impact five months after its launch, with extra officers being drafted in to support local police, and additional support from local Violence Reduction Units and the police helicopter. Police horses have also been used on high-visibility patrols in the area.
Insp Happs highlighted a drop in violent crime – which is 16 per cent lower than the five-year average – as a particular success.
“In north Edinburgh alone, 130 fewer people have been victims of violent crimes,” he said. “When crime is reported to us, it’s our job to investigate it.
“We’ll continue to do that. Detection rates are increasing. What happens after that is the important part.
“There’s a lot of multi-agency work going on supporting those young people, through education, the family, looking at the housing system, and really trying to look at ways of helping that whole family coming out of that criminality.”
In recent weeks, a significant number of young criminals have been put on electronic tags, or police or court curfews.
Insp Happs added: “The public recognise that it’s a small minority that are involved in crime – it’s certainly not fair to apply that to all local people.” He acknowledged that there was still “more work to be done”, but hailed the “significant steps” that had been made so far.
Projects in local schools – such as the Mentors in Violence programme at Craigroyston High – are helping to change young people’s attitudes.
In response to community feedback about troublespots, extra CCTV cameras have been fitted in the Ferry Road Drive area of West Pilton, and there are plans to bring more cameras to the area in coming months.
A tougher stance on housing has seen the family of Gary Reid, who was this week jailed for the attempted murder of Jie Yu, moved out of the area.
Since the launch of Stronger North, the council has issued seven tenancy warnings, ten private landlord warnings and eight acceptable behaviour contracts. And local residents have been getting involved in community clear-ups to improve the appearance of the area.
Insp Happs said: “Local people have said to us, things are getting better, they are not ideal but they are better and it’s in the right direction.”
Willie Black, secretary of West Pilton and West Granton community council, said the sheriffs would be welcomed.
He said: “I’m in favour of the sheriffs coming down and seeing how we live. But it’s what else we can do, with youth intervention and employment prospects. They know the consequences, but we want to break the cycle. I understand the anger that’s around, but we need a total answer.”
No-one from the Justiciary Office was available to comment.
Officers out in force as part of initiative to tackle crime
Police were out in north Edinburgh last night as part of the ongoing Stronger North initiative.
High-visibility patrols have been a key element of the wider drive to curb crime and “build a stronger community”.
Officers set off from Drylaw Police Station at around 7pm to conduct local patrols and speak to residents about concerns.
The routine work follows a series of raids over recent months to crack down on a small core of criminals who are persistently causing problems.
In January, the Evening News joined plain-clothed officers on visits to Drylaw homes occupied by “associates” of a teenager who had breached bail.
A 16-year-old boy – who was on bail for attempting to steal a car – was found at a second flat and led away in handcuffs. He was later charged for a series of other car crimes.
In another case, a 15-year-old boy with a history of vehicle crime was transferred to secure accommodation after flouting conditions imposed by the Children’s Reporter.
Complaints about the scale of car crime in north Edinburgh contributed to the launch of national campaign Operation Quarterlight.
A police helicopter has been in the area on a number of occasions over the past week to assist in planned operations.
Inspector David Happs moved to reassure locals about the use of the helicopter, describing it as a helpful asset to support police officers on the ground.
He said: “It’s another tool in terms of tackling car crime. Vehicles being driven at high speed on the street by people who are under-age, without a licence, so anything we can do to reduce that risk – I don’t think you can put a price on that. The benefits of using a helicopter to co-ordinate a response to that would outweigh the cost of having it in the air.”
He said the helicopter often gathered key evidence which assisted officers in raids.
LITANY OF LAWLESSNESS
October 1, 2014: Jie Yu, 38, pictured, is stabbed on West Pilton Park, after his car is stolen from outside his Peking Garden takeaway on Ferry Road Drive.
October 7: Frustrated locals pack into the West Pilton and West Granton community council meeting to demand action on crime.
October 22: Stronger North is set up by the council and police, following a “gold command” summit with city council chief executive Sue Bruce.
November 7: Youths fire “industrial strength” fireworks at Drylaw Police Station in an incident described as “disturbing” by locals.
January 20, 2015: Police launch dawn raids cracking down on a dozen teenagers suspected of stealing and breaking into around 1000 cars across north Edinburgh in nine months.
February 7: Council report reveals that nearly a quarter of all deliberate blazes in the city are in north Edinburgh.
February 25: Gary Reid, 19, and James Hogg, 24, admit the attempted murder of Jie Yu.
March 24: Reid gets seven years in a young offenders institute; Hogg receives eight years and three months in prison.