SOME of Scotland's most crime-ridden areas have seen a massive reduction in offences following the return of bobbies on the beat.
In some areas, crime rates have fallen by a fifth since old-fashioned street patrols were introduced, The Scotsman can reveal.
Bringing back regular foot patrols by uniformed officers who know the area and the people – a method not used in Edinburgh since the early 1990s – has produced one of the Lothian and Borders force's biggest success stories, and further fuelled the debate over front-line policing in Scotland.
A similar picture has emerged in Glasgow, where serious assaults fell by 38 per cent last year in city-centre zones that were flooded by extra police foot patrols at nights and weekends.
The huge success of the beat-bobby approach in Scotland's two biggest cities has triggered calls for more officers to patrol residential areas in cities and towns across the country.
Joe Grant, the secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, said there was a "paradigm shift" towards more beat patrols, after 20 years of officers being drained away from front-line community policing and towards meeting new specialist demands placed on the service, such as drug squads, child protection units and the monitoring of sex offenders.
"I get the sense that the paradigm is shifting, where we are starting to redefine and realise what our primary policing role is," he said. "That is prevention of crime. The question is how we do that, and one of the answers, undoubtedly, is by adopting the high-profile patrolling model."
Jackie Muller, secretary of the federation's Lothian and Borders branch, said police would be able to tackle antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime if more officers were tasked with patrolling residential areas, as well as town and city centres. "My membership are telling me they would be able to give a better service to the public if they were out in the communities in which they serve," she said.
Amid concerns over the high level of crime in the centre of Edinburgh, senior officers decided to create four beats, covering approximately one square mile, from Lothian Road to Holyrood Park.
Each beat has a specific team of officers, headed by an experienced sergeant and including at least one youth action officer, a crime prevention expert and a licensing officer. Crucially, they also have up to a dozen uniformed officers who carry out round-the-clock patrols on foot and bicycle. The same officers work the same beats, so they get to know the local business people and residents – as well the main troublemakers.
The number of police on patrol reaches its height at weekends, when more than 60 officers, some of whom have been specially funded by Edinburgh city council, are out in force – about 20 more than was the case before the beats were set up.
The number of crimes across the area has dropped from 5,887 between 1 April and 31 November, 2006, to 5,030 over the same period last year – a drop of 15 per cent. Over the same period, the number of thefts was down 18 per cent, from 1,876 to 1,533, while shoplifting cases fell about 10 per cent.
Around the Royal Mile, including Hunter Square – one of the biggest hotspots for drugs and nuisance begging – the number of reported crimes fell 20 per cent, from 2,811 to 2,242.
Inspector Bruce Johnston said the key to reducing crime and making people safe was to use the same officers.
He said: "They know the problems, they know the public, and the public know him or her. It's a return to the old, with the help of new, intelligence-led methods. And it is working.
"Other places may well have different problems to Edinburgh city centre, but I think this would work elsewhere."
In Glasgow, the number of police officers who patrol the heart of the city, to which 100,000 people flock every weekend, has quadrupled from about 15 or 20 to some 75.
Chief Superintendent David Christie, the commander of the Glasgow central division, said this had had a "significant" effect on crime rates. "Last year, violent crimes were down 38 per cent in the specific areas where we put extra officers. There's been a sea change," he said.
It is understood much of the cost of upping front-line officer numbers in Glasgow will come from a reduction of middle-management officers, such as superintendents, at Strathclyde Police's headquarters in the city.
The success of the beat-bobby strategy has put more pressure on the SNP to deliver on its manifesto commitment to pay for an extra 1,000 officers. The Scottish Government has said it will fund 500 additional officers, with the remainder coming from cutting red tape and dissuading other staff from retiring.
Bill Aitken, the Scottish Conservatives' justice spokesman, said: "This demonstrates what we have been saying all along – that a highly visible police presence reduces and deters crime, and this is why it is absolutely vital that the Scottish Government keeps its promise of 1,000 new police officers."
However, one criminology expert urged caution. Susan McVie, a senior research fellow at the University of Edinburgh's school of law, said that, while putting officers on the beat could be an effective strategy, it was liable to frighten members of the public if managed incorrectly.
She said: "Having more police on the streets can be effective, if it's modelled in the right way. There can be a direct cause-and- effect on crime rates if officers are deployed in certain areas, such as nightclubs, late at night, when they act as a preventative measure, but are also able to stop incidents in mid-flow.
"However, having police patrol housing estates and general public areas can be a waste of time. It does not prevent antisocial behaviour, and can frighten residents, such as older people, into thinking crime is ongoing. In such cases, having more police on the beat can be a self-perpetuating problem."