There is no doubt that the creation of Police Scotland has changed policing in our city, and these changes have had significant implications for local communities across Edinburgh.
I remember the first major local issue I dealt with when I was first elected as a councillor in 2003. Youth antisocial behaviour was blighting the standard of living of communities. We had many public meetings with local groups led by the effective Inch Community Association. The clear conclusion was that there was a real need to get police on the local streets with continuity of officers to provide reassurance, intelligence and build respect.
Borne out of this was the Youth Action Team – a joint funding venture between the council and Lothian and Borders Police. It had some outstanding results locally. Youth antisocial behaviour complaints to the police plummeted, community groups felt they had a real voice with the local officers and many of the long-standing crime issues were being resolved.
The Youth Action Team was so successful that it was rolled out across the city. After some tweaks it evolved into Safer Neighbourhood Teams – partly paid for by residents’ council tax. Dedicated police officers were working hand-in-hand with the antisocial behaviour teams at the council whilst being rooted in local communities and answerable directly to local people.
The police do a good job locally but there is a feeling that the focus on neighbourhood policing has been lost. It is not just every community group, community council and local people that tell me that but the police themselves, who feel frustrated that they feel they are no longer rooted locally.
In South Edinburgh we have seen a spike in housebreaking, an increase in the perception of antisocial behaviour and high-profile incidents of shopkeepers being subject to robbery. Whilst these are still relatively rare, and incidents of crime are statistically low, the view amongst local people is one of serious concern. It can’t be right that it is now statistically more dangerous to be a shopkeeper than a frontline police officer as highlighted by the Evening News.
Of course, it is the fear of crime that is the biggest issue and therein lies the problem. Whilst the chief constable will emphasise, as he has done to me in response to several letters, that community beat officers are still in place, they are pulled all over the city for other duties and are not attending local groups or being visible. That visibility is essential to detect and solve crime but, more importantly, it’s critical to reassurance of the fear of crime.
I’m pleased that Police Scotland responded to calls of Edinburgh residents to reinstate the housebreaking team that was disbanded at the inception of Police Scotland, but for too many of my constituents that particular horse has already bolted and the fear of housebreaking is as high as I’ve ever known. The guidance they are given though is to ask the police for free security advice.
In years gone by, local people could reel off the names of their community officers, identify them and be confident to talk to them. That disconnect, with the effective removal of community beat officers, undermines confidence.
Police Scotland has been accused of Glasgowisation and I think that has harmed the local community police that it took years to establish. Local community groups and residents in South Edinburgh say time and time again “we want our wonderful community beat officers back”.
I hope that Police Scotland and the Scottish Government think again before they are lost forever.
Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South