THE number of burglars being caught in Edinburgh has plummeted following a radical overhaul of break-in investigations under Police Scotland.
Since the launch of the single force on April 1, only 17 per cent of housebreakings in the Capital have been solved. During the same two-month period last year, arrests were made in 40 per cent of cases.
The massive fall comes after the city’s specialised housebreaking teams, whose detectives were praised for slashing the rate of break-ins, were disbanded under the national framework.
Now more break-in inquiries are being handled by uniformed officers, rather than specialists, sparking fears the change has led to the drop in performance.
The “worrying” figures have prompted calls for the housebreakings team to be reformed amid criticism that national policing priorities are eclipsing local needs.
But police chiefs today said that all housebreakings were being dealt with “thoroughly and professionally”, while the number of reported break-ins was also falling.
The drop-off in solvency rates comes after the Crown Office announced that every housebreaker caught in Edinburgh over the next three months is set to face up to five years in jail, as part of a ground-breaking Scottish pilot scheme. Prosecutors unveiled the tough approach, launched last Monday, which will see anyone snared by police after a break-in brought to court on a more serious indictment charge.
A serving officer, who asked not to be named, said staff are concerned at the changes, which have led to a fall in the burglary detection rate.
He said: “Officers have been told that housebreaking is no longer a priority for the force and that they are not to speak about it or discuss it with anyone.
“The disbanding of the housebreakings teams has had, and will have, a dramatic effect on the solvency rate, which is already falling.
“Previously incidents were reported to the teams, who had specialist knowledge. Now it can be left to the uniformed officer who attends a housebreaking incident to investigate.
“I agree with tougher sentences for housebreaking, but the current force policy does not seem to be backing up efforts to reduce such crimes.”
Three specialist housebreaking teams previously covered the south and east, north and central, and the west and Pentlands areas.
Each was comprised of a sergeant and around six officers with specialist knowledge of housebreaking activity, such as the identities and crime patterns of known offenders.
Under the new system, uniformed officers who previously attended break-ins to take statements to pass on to the specialist teams will increasingly be tasked with investigating them.
The former specialists are now part of the city’s three new Community Investigation Units (CIUs), where they still probe break-ins – but along with other priorities such as violent and drug crime.
The setting up of CIUs is being replicated in divisions across the country under Police Scotland.
During April and May, 309 housebreakings were recorded in Edinburgh, compared with 361 for the same period last year.
Chief Superintendent Mark Williams, the city’s divisional commander, said: “Let me be clear – all crime matters and my officers will investigate all reports, including housebreakings, thoroughly and professionally.
“The formation of Police Scotland gave us the opportunity to evaluate our processes and put in place measures to more effectively focus our resources. As a result, our Community Investigation Units were set up to investigate the crimes that over 3000 members of the public across Edinburgh told us were important to them, including housebreakings.
“At no time have officers been told not to discuss housebreaking with the public or partners and, in fact, the opposite applies – we regularly engage with home and business owners to educate them on vital crime prevention techniques and all crimes should be professionally dealt with.
“This approach is working – in the last year alone there has been a 14 per cent reduction in housebreakings, and whilst solvency levels are down to 17 per cent we closely monitor them and ensure all investigative opportunities are taken.
“Crime in the city of Edinburgh continues to fall, and is currently at its lowest level for over a decade.”
Police chiefs said that the former housebreaking teams did not investigate every housebreaking, with some dealt with by uniformed colleagues, and solvency rates can fluctuate throughout a year, due to a “variety of factors”.
They added that uniformed officers were trained investigators, and if a break-in was proving particularly difficult to solve then it would be allocated to CID, while support from specialists would always be available.
Edinburgh West Liberal Democrat MP Mike Crockart wants to see the old way of catching housebreakers reinstated.
He said: “When we moved to a single police service for Scotland, I was worried that local policing priorities might get lost, and the latest statistics for theft by housebreaking seem worryingly to show that this is happening.
“People in Edinburgh want to know that their houses are safe regardless of whether knife-crime in Glasgow is being dealt with effectively. I’ve already written to Edinburgh’s divisional commander urging him to reverse this decision.”
Mr Crockart wrote to Chief Superintendent Mark Williams after being alerted to the loss of a housebreaking team, based at Corstorphine police station, by members of the local community council.
Labour justice spokesman Lewis Macdonald said: “This a warning about the dangers of standardising policing across Scotland. What works in a particular place, such as the housebreaking teams in Edinburgh, should be allowed to continue to work.
“There should not be changes in policing just because it’s the way that it’s done in Glasgow.
“Deterrence is not just about jail sentences, it’s also about catching people, and these figures show that this is going in the wrong direction.”
Blitz city’s ‘super burglars’
HOUSEBREAKING teams were launched to combat a soaring number of break-ins in the Capital.
Following the move, the number of housebreakings fell in 2006 for the first time in three years. One of the team’s principal successes was a blitz on some of the worst offenders, with around a third of a list of 50 “super burglars” identified as being responsible for the majority of break-ins put behind bars in 2005/6.
Between April and June 2005, 608 break-ins were recorded, although police met their goal of solving more than 40 per cent.
But detectives continued to face a large number of break-ins, often carried out by serial thieves. A total of 1937 homes were broken into between April 2007 and March 2008 against 1757 for the preceding 12 months, an increase of ten per cent. The majority of prolific offenders are funding serious drug habits.