Northern Ireland

East Belfast: Police concern over ACT residents' patrols

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Media captionAction for Community Transformation has set up groups of residents to walk around their estates at night, as Colletta Smith reports

Police have expressed concern over night-time street patrols by a loyalist community group in east Belfast.

The group, Action for Community Transformation (ACT), told the BBC the aim of the patrols is to prevent crime and deter anti-social behaviour.

ACT is involved in community work. It has set up groups of residents to walk around their estates, watching for burglars and "suspicious activity".

The groups were filmed on Tuesday night patrolling the Braniel estate.

'Concerned residents'

One of the organisers from ACT, Ian Shanks, said: "There's been several break-ins in the last couple of weeks in the Braniel, but it's increasing all over east Belfast.

"We're not here to be vigilantes or anything. We're just here as concerned residents."

A young man who was filmed taking part said: "We're just out to deter people from doing wrong.

"Hopefully, if people are looking out of their window, the more vulnerable people, that they'll see us out and hopefully it'll give them a bit of peace of mind, because at the end of the day your home is supposed to be your sanctuary."

Image caption ACT patrol organiser Ian Shanks said the residents were not acting as vigilantes but were concerned about crime near their homes

However, the Police Services of Northern Ireland has asked the group to stop the patrols until the volunteers are formally organised into a "regulated" and "accountable" neighbour watch group.

'Fear of crime'

Supt Darren Jones, who is in charge of operations for Belfast City policing district said officers have recently received reports from the public expressing concerns about groups of individuals patrolling the streets.

"This is actually increasing fear of crime, particularly within vulnerable groups, and it's not having an impact, as far as we know, on actually reducing crime," he said.

The group said it held a meeting in a local church and decided on the action after a 70-year-old man's home was broken into on a Sunday morning.

One of the group told the BBC's Talkback programme: "We're all family men and we're not going to put ourselves in a position where, if we do catch somebody on the street, as angry as it would make you, we're not going to put ourselves in a position where the law is going to come down on us."

Another man said he would make a "citizen's arrest" if he confronted a burglar.

When asked if residents should leave street patrols to the PSNI, another resident said: "We've been out for an hour at the minute and there hasn't been one police patrol, police car about.

"There's only so many cars, so they can't cover everywhere."

A woman taking part in the patrols said: "At the end of the day we need to protect where we live and make sure that people are safe in their homes and feeling safe in their homes."

'Properly trained'

Another woman said that on an average night they patrol together in groups of three of four, walking up side streets and alleyways, mostly checking on the homes of pensioners to "make sure they're ok".

Image caption Women on patrol in east Belfast said they were trying to protect vulnerable pensioners

Supt Jones said officers have already given "some advice to the ACT group" but said that it was on an "ad hoc and informal" basis.

"We're keen to promote volunteering but we need to do it a structured and regulated way, so we can make people accountable for their actions."

"We would rather they didn't do it at this time, until they're properly trained, until they're properly constituted, until they speak to us to allow us to impart advice, and that's not only just to protect them, it's also to protect vulnerable people within the community as well," the officer said.

However, Dr William Mitchell, co-ordinator of the ACT initiative said ACT was already a "legally constituted" group.

He said it was registered as a limited company with Companies House, with a board of directors "made up of civic society".

Dr Mitchell said they had already held a community consultation process and followed the recommendations on the PSNI's website before setting up the neighbourhood patrols.