Leader comment: Police must not treat minor crime less seriously

An increasing amount of police time is spent on cyber crime, leaving resources thin on the ground. Picture: John Devlin

An increasing amount of police time is spent on cyber crime, leaving resources thin on the ground. Picture: John Devlin

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We have been aware for some time that priorities for law enforcement are changing. This shouldn’t trouble us too much, because society is constantly evolving and the police must respond accordingly, shifting their focus to combat whatever emerges to threaten law and order.

Although overall recorded crime figures have fallen to their lowest levels in the past 40 years, it’s possible that society is not actually as safe as it might appear on paper. A report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland has highlighted an increase in the number of cyber crimes taking place, and warns that the true scale is probably much greater than records suggest.

Even Police Scotland’s Chief Constable, Phil Gormley. has said cyber crime is one of the force’s biggest challenges in the present day and admitted traditional policing practices will be affected by this, since resources can only stretch so far.

But while we may accept such changes to strategy, most of us are likely to be alarmed at the thought of minor offences being dealt with over the phone. The HMICS report suggests this method would only be used if the complainer is happy with this approach, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where this would be a satisfactory and effective means of dealing with an alleged crime. Where is the evidence in a faceless phone call? How can theft be ‘resolved’ at the “first point of contact”?

The Scottish Police Federation has expressed concern over the proposal, and citizens are likely to be just as uncomfortable. There is a danger here that the public will lose confidence in the ability of the police to protect our interests. And this could lead to fewer genuine crimes being reported, as an impression builds that the force will do nothing. Not only that, as the SPF correctly highlights, the reporting of a minor offence can often lead to the discovery of a more significant crime.

Meanwhile, the report suggests that telephone reporting “would alleviate demand on the frontline” and allow officers to “engage more with their local communities”. But surely, from the point of view of residents, engagement means responding to and investigating crimes committed in their neighbourhood.

Fortunately, HMICS has not made this suggestion an official recommendation. And it should remain that way – as an idea floated, but one that was not enforced.

Meantime, we should think hard about what public service we want from our law enforcers. Many people may mistakenly believe they are not vulnerable to online criminals and so do not consider it a pressing danger.

Anti-social behaviour and theft may seem more immediately threatening than the risk of online ‘sextortion’, child pornography, blackmail or fraud, but perhaps we need to find out whether this is in fact the case.

As the Chief Constable has said, it’s time for a “grown-up conversation” and to properly educate people about cyber criminality. But at the same time, let’s not lose sight of the benefits of traditional policing.

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