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Crimes like housebreaking must always be a priority for the police


Here's my latest article in the Scotsman, published 24th October 2022.


When the National Police Chiefs’ Council of England and Wales announced, with some fanfare, that from now on officers would actually attend the scenes of burglaries (housebreakings in our system), I was taken aback.


Trumpeted almost as if this was some kind of enhancement of service, for me it indicated just how far standards had slipped south of the Border. If a serious crime like housebreaking is not a priority, what is? The founding fathers of the modern police service must have been spinning in their graves, for one of the core duties of the police is to protect life and property.


It does, however, explain why the detection rate for burglary in some parts of England is as low as four per cent. I suspect the local cub scouts could catch more burglars than that. Thankfully we are a long way from this dire situation in Scotland, but it serves as a warning and raises important questions about priorities and the police’s core duties.


But first, some record-straightening on housebreaking. The crime of forcibly entering and stealing from a home or business has always been considered one of the most serious in the criminal code. Recently it has been mooted by some that since the crime involves only the theft of property, it should not be prioritised. This misses the reality of victims’ experiences.


There is nothing more personal than having the sanctity of your home desecrated, your personal belongings stolen or trashed. The other great truth about housebreaking is that the number of these crimes has fallen and that, generally, they are eminently solvable. Most are local, carried out by a small group of individuals who are not that clever and follow patterns.


The old maxim that 50 per cent of success is showing up has never been truer than in these investigations. Basic forensics, noting patterns, using CCTV, even an old-fashioned house-to-house, can often bring results. With decent investigators and good systems, there is no reason why half of all housebreakings cannot be cleared up.


And there’s a spin-off. Gather intelligence about these crimes and those that commit them often lead to other things. Who is buying the stolen property, and what is motivating the criminal? Drug-use perhaps? That’s why the active investigation of crime must always stand at the centre of police duties.


But there is another underlying problem, and here’s the rub. If serious property crime is not a police priority, what is? I suspect that there is nothing specific, just that gradually over the years more and more non-police tasks have been taken on, to fill gaps left by social services and, particularly, mental health provision. It has now reached the stage that the vast percentage of calls to the police are not related to crime at all. The police service has simply been swamped by a myriad of competing demands and, in some places, has forgotten its purpose.


The inescapable fact is that, as we likely enter recession, all public services will shrink. It is time for frank conversations with partner agencies about what can and cannot be done. There must be policing priorities aligned with core responsibilities and the active investigation of crimes like housebreaking must be among them.


My article can also be found at the Scotsman.com.


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