Analysis: A sensible response to new type of crime

Anti-burglary strategy: Public will be waiting to see what has changed in new legislation

At the launch of Operation Thor at Garda HQ are Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, Deputy Garda Commissioner John Twomey and Gurchand Singh, head of the Garda analysis service. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

At the launch of Operation Thor at Garda HQ are Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, Deputy Garda Commissioner John Twomey and Gurchand Singh, head of the Garda analysis service. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

 

In the debate on the extent of rural crime, there are two versions of what is happening. The first is inspired by a number of terrible events that have occurred over the past couple of months.

A man in his 60s died of a heart attack in Co Limerick when confronting robbers at his home. In another case, a Dublin-based gang received long jail sentences for viciously attacking and terrifying a family in their Co Tipperary home. And last month Garda Tony Golden was shot dead in Co Louth.

These awful events have fed into a theory that rural crime has become endemic, with highly mobile and ruthless criminal gangs using the motorway network to terrorise isolated rural communities.

Every rural organisation has subscribed to this version, with packed meetings and demands for decisive action by the Garda and the authorities. The closure of Garda stations and the recruitment embargo, that has seen the strength of the Garda reduced by 2,000 in recent years, have been blamed for the upsurge in crime.

The second version is more prosaic.There was indeed an increase of nearly 20 per cent in burglaries last year, compared to 2007, but 80 per cent of the increase was in Dublin. With the exception of a few Garda divisions surrounding the capital, such as Laois and Offaly, crime rates elsewhere have not escalated appreciably.

In 10 of the 28 divisions, burglary rates have actually fallen since 2007. The big paradox is that the greatest falls have occurred in the westerly regions where the most Garda stations have been closed down. So why the clamour in rural areas? There are a number of factors that might partly explain it.

One is the cluster of terrible events that have heightened fears. Another, which was referred to by Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan yesterday, was the perception of communities that the problem was real and proximate. No statistic, she suggested, could cover such perceptions or fears.

Garda stations

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice from Roscommon-Galway East said that with the closure of Garda stations, people were not bothering to report crime in rural areas as in the past because they considered it to be pointless.

Operation Thor is a sensible crime strategy that addresses a number of new phenomena in crime, even if the extent of that crime has been exaggerated. There is evidence of a small number of gangs and criminals who have used high-powered SUVs on the motorway network to carry out “smash-and-grab” burglaries in isolated areas.

A little like Operation Shannon during a rural crime scare in 1995 (it mounted checkpoints on all bridges across the river Shannon), Operation Thor pinpoints the means of access and escape for these criminals. That is the motorway network.

Thor will see the introduction of a new fleet of expensive SUVs for its armed support units, regular checkpoints on the web of motorways from Dublin, and the use of of number plate recognition technology (and covert surveillance).

That will go in tandem with education, awareness and advertising campaigns, work with other State agencies and community organisations, as well as more extensive use of the forces own ICT and analysis service to identify “hotspots”, where Garda visibility can be increased.

Politically, tough new bail and burglary laws are promised before the end of the Government’s term. Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said that electronic tagging of offenders would form part of the bail Act but warned it was not a “panacea”.

Tags are not new. As the Independent TD Denis Naughten has pointed out, they have been provided for in law since the Criminal Justice Act of 2007. However, the section of the Act that provides for tagging has never been commenced because of concerns about “operational effectiveness”.

The public will be waiting to see what has changed in the new legislation.

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