Local MSP Jackie Baillie, has expressed serious concern at a controversial shake-up of police services which will see some police stations closing to the public, affecting her Dumbarton constituency – which includes the ward of Helensburgh and Lomond in Argyll and Bute.
Under the plans announced this week, the front desks at Alexandria and Garelochhead police stations will shut, potentially leading to the stations themselves shutting.
The 24-hour service in Dumbarton is also under threat, with police chiefs considering closing the front desk outside office hours and during the weekends.
The future for Helensburgh station is less clear, with the proposal only planning on retaining the current level of service ‘for the foreseeable future’.
It would be impossible to justify closing a station to the public in a town the size of Helensburgh and with the endemic gangland troubles it suffers, laid bare in recent major court cases.
Jackie Baillie has asked for an urgent meeting with Police Scotland to discuss the proposals but attributes the cuts to SNP budget choices, saying: ‘Only a couple of weeks ago a top police chief warned that the SNP’s £60 million budget cuts are bringing the service close to tipping point.
‘These proposed closures are the latest in a long line of service cuts which have seen police officers go from the beat to the back office to make up for declining numbers of support staff.
‘Police services should be face-to-face and rooted in the local community so that’s why I am seeking an urgent meeting with Police Scotland to make my concerns known.’
Commenting on the proposal to classify Helensburgh police station as a Category C service, Ms Baillie says: ‘Given the recent tensions in the Helensburgh community as a result of the Sharkey case, it is only right that current service levels at the station should be maintained.
‘However local people will be worried that Police Scotland are only proposing to keep the front desk open during evenings and weekends ‘for the foreseeable future’.
‘People who live in a town the size of Helensburgh expect to have a properly staffed police station which is open to the public. And frankly the people in Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven expect the same.’
What happens when police stations are closed
This is an account of a personal experience in Ireland some years ago. It illustrates the ways in which the closure of police stations actively prevents the apprehension of offenders.
I had a day off and took my dogs for a walk at a long beach fringed by woodland and between the local B road and Belfast Lough, a ten minute drive away from where I lived at the time.
As I walked along the empty beach, I gradually became aware of ‘activity’, movement of some kind in the woodland.
I glanced across and up and saw a business man – long dark overcoat and a briefcase – dashing between tress in a parallel direction to mine.
I was dawdling because my dogs were dawdling so he quickly got ahead of me. Because so formal a figure in such an apparent paddy was strange in this setting, I kept an eye on him. When he got ahead of me by about ten yards he stopped, turned towards me, dropped his brief case and revealed the nature of his urgency. He was a flasher.
I walked on to try to retrieve my dogs and as I moved, he grabbed his brief case from the ground and scrambled off again. I thought he was running away having done what he needed to do – but all he was doing was getting to another vantage point where he could expose himself again.
What was of concern was the manic urgency in him. He was rushing, tripping, hurling himself forward to get to positions where he could repeatedly confront me.
I saw a couple come on to the far end of the beach some distance away and decided to carry on walking unti I intercepted them and ask if I could walk back with them.
I am small. My dogs were not – they were Irish wolfhounds, with plenty of speed but no defensive capacity at all. They looked business-like though, so I took comfort in that, calling them and putting both back on their leads.
The elderly couple I met thought I was some kind of nut case when I asked if I could walk back with them. I explained the reason, which confirmed their suspicions of me – as the culprit had gone behind some trees and was invisible.
However, as we walked edgily along together, desperation got the better of him and he began the same routine. He would charge ahead of us, find a vantage point, turn and, you might say, throw caution to the winds. Again and again.
The old pair were alarmed but comforted by the size of my dogs. I felt better for their company. When we got back to the near end of the beach where I’d started, the car park at the top of the shingle was empty, except for my car. I wondered where the flasher had come from in the kit he was wearing. I could see him up in the wood, behind a tree, watching us.
I put the couple I was with in the car and drove them to the village they came from at the other end of the beach – Helen’s Bay. They didn’t feel like running that gauntlet on the shore again, alone.
As we tuned right onto the road from Crawfordsburn Country Park, which gave access to the beach, there was a Mercedes saloon parked right up on the verge by the gate, on the narrow back road.
This had to be the outdoor enthusiast’s car. It fitted the kit he was and wasn’t wearing and there was no reason for anyone normally to leave a car in that sort of place in the middle of nowhere, with the car park a few hundred yards away.
I shot the old couple home as fast as I could go – they and the dog were airborne on a couple of bumps on the road – and rushed to Helen’s Bay Police Station to report the flaher in time for them to get out to the Park and wait for him at his car.
At this time, ‘the troubles’ meant that all police stations in Northern Ireland, rural or urban, were behind heavy duty security fences and gates as far from the station building as space allowed – to prevent them from being damaged by a bomb left in a car parked outside.
I looked for a bell of some kind. Nothing.
I expected to have been observed arriving and for someone to come out to interrogate me. Nothing.
I rattled the gate as hard as I could, thinking that annoyance at the row I was making would bring them out, if only to charge me with something. Nothing.
Eventually I knocked at a near by house and was told that there might or might not be anyone in the station but that it wasn’t open to the public any more anyway.
I tried one more time, with no result and in extreme frustration, I drove away, imagining that the flasher would have been long gone and furious at the missed chance to have him caught.
When I passend the park, the Merc was still on the verge.
This beach – Crawfordsburn beach – was one where children and families came after school. By then I was very angry at the risk involved to others in my inability to get a squeak out of the police station.
I turned into the gate of the park, swung round to a position where I could keep sight of the Mercedes, switched off the engine, locked the doors and waited. My intention was to follow the car when he came back to it.
I waited for two and a half hours, by which time I had guessed he could see my car parked at a point of vigilance and was in a bit of a rut himself.
When dusk began to fall and the dogs were very restive, I had to pack it in. If I had parked the car in a concealed place and hidden somewhere in the ditch I might have managed to see him – but what could I then have done? I had no camera on me and would have had neither the security of being in a car nor any means of giving chase.
I went home and reported the incident to the police in Bangor and gave the registration number and details of the car – but with no evidence that the car bore any relation to the flasher. I heard no more about it.
The primary function of policing
This is a first hand example of why closing police stations and front desks to the public runs flatly counter to the raison d’etre of police.
The primary purpose of policing is prevention and apprehension, not the mere recording of incidents.
In this case, had the station either been open or staffed, this pest could very straightforwardly have been taken into custody. I could have identified him, as could the couple I had walked back with along the beach. We had seen enough of him.
Going home and phoning a call centre which would redirect my alert to the nearest possible station [miles away] would have been pointless in this sort of incident – which might as well have been witnessing the sort of break-ins that are happening just now across Mid Argyll , Knapdale and north Kintyre.
Provided there are any staff in a station, we cannot see any reason why public desks cannot be kept open. Officers could work in rotation at desks behind the counter and deal with public enquiries as and when they emerged – as many do.
If there are to be no staff in the stations who could multitask in this way, it adds weight to Jackie Baillie’s fear that closing front desks means approaching closure of stations themselves.