CHRISTMAS shoppers should have little to worry about if the latest claims from Chester Community Action Team (CATS) officers are to be believed, as ROISIN GAD EL RAB reveals in this special report on tackling crime in the city centre.
CHESTER city centre is now a safer place in which to live, work and play according to figures from Cheshire police which claim incidents of violent crime, begging and burglary have dropped significantly compared with the same period last year.
The city is responsible for issuing a quarter of the county's anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), which may explain why the number of recorded incidents of anti-social behaviour has also dropped - a 13% decrease over the summer months.
Between May and October 2003, recorded begging incidents fell by 49%, reaching 66% during times when targeted operations were implemented.
Violent crime rates have fallen steadily over the summer dropping from an average in May of 40 incidents of assault to 24 by August. And over the past six weeks,acrossthewhole ofthecitycentre, therehave been 11 incidents of dwelling burglaries.
Chester's Inner Sector CATS team, which relocated to the Town Hall in September, believe their new central location and proximity to the city's CCTV suite, have been partly responsible for their recent success.
Inner Sector Inspector Peter Crowcroft has also put the positive results down to an increased high-visibility police presence.
He said: 'The feedback I've received from the public and based on the figures, which have been very encouraging, but particularly the positive feedback, would lead me to say Chester is becoming a safer place in which to live.
'However, I acknowledge there is more to be done and every day we will do this work to make next year safer than this year and the year after to be safer still.'
He says he is determined to know if this safer feeling within the city centre is the genuine consensus.
'The police and partnership agencies want the same as the public - a safe place to live, work and play in and that's what the CATS are all about,' he said.
'I'm keen to get people to feel safe. Is there a perceivable impression among people in Chester, that they feel safe?'
'Statistics are one thing but I would encourage your readers to respond and would like to know if what we are doing is making them feel safer,' he added.
This is what the Inspector had to say on the key crime areas which police believe have been improved: 'Overthe summermonthswesaw asteadydeclinein violent crime in the sector, however, there is still more work to be done.
'With operations like Yellow Card and Alpine, which operated between the hours of 8pm and 3am, we have specifically targeted violent crime. This has fallen from May to September.'
Figures accounting for assaults from the most serious to the more minor record a steady decline, from 40 during May this year to 24 by August. Ten of the county's 39 ASBOs have been secured within Chester City Centre. The latest was John Parker. He breached his ASBO within a week of it being granted and was arrested and sentenced to 14 days in prison.
'CCTV has greatly helped with the implementation of ASBOs. All divisional officers target people who have ASBOs to check they are not being breached.'
Afurther eight ASBOs have been issued in Blacon,and three in Ellesmere Port, which means Chester and Ellesmere Port division are responsible for more then half of the county's 39 so far issued.
Between May and October last year there were 49 recorded incidents of begging, while this year, there were 25 during the same time. Officers target known beggars referring them to outreach workers and the Harold Tomlins Day centre, where they can get a meal.
'Our first concern is to get them somewhere to go to give them food. However, persistent offenders will be arrested, dealt with and may become subject to an ASBO.' The Inner Sector CATS team covers a large area, which includes the traditional city centre, Brook Street, City Road, Greyhound Parks, Sealand Road, College ward, Newtown and Boughton.
'We have had very low instances of dwelling burglaries - 11 recorded incidents over the last six weeks.'
The Inspector reassured Christmas shoppers extra resources would beemployed to make visiting Chester a safer option for the festive season.
'We will be running Operation ATOL at Christmas, which focuses on reassurance, to address bag snatching, pick-pocketing and drunken behaviour. Again, we will have high-visibility officers out at times that present problems to us.'
CATS' eyes are focused on future
HAVING settled into their new home, the Inner Sector CATS team can concentrate all their efforts on moving forward.
People with non-emergency city centre issues can now find information and assistance from the Community Safety Centre (CSC) based at Chester's Town Hall.
Inner Sector Inspector Peter Crowcroft spoke of the benefits of relocating and the team's relationship with their new neighbours - the city's CCTV operators
He said: 'We are loving the new office. It's purpose built right in the centre of the community we serve. As soon as they step out of the door the CATS officers are right at the heart of the sector. And being in their own building, away from HQ, means there is less chance of officers being diverted from their duties by being asked to take on additional work from other departments.'
As for his subordinates, he continued: 'The officers are finding it great. They are allowed more time to get out and about speaking to the community, we have state-of-the-art equipment, CCTV, refreshments and showers - they are well catered for here.'
Insp Crowcroft said the CSC has received visitors but would welcome many more.
'We are here to deal with any community-related issues that exist in the inner sector, come in or give us a ring,' he added.
He stresses the CSC is not an incident response centre and so is not geared to deal with emergency or non-inner sector issues but will be happy to point visitors in the direction of the relevant department.
The direct access officers now have to the CCTV suite is a major benefit of moving to the Town Hall.
'The CCTV has been right across the hall and it has been absolutely fantastic,' said Insp Crowcroft.
'For example, a couple of weeks ago a bike was stolen from outside the building. We were alerted by CCTV staff, officers were informed and the thief was tracked and apprehended. CCTV were our eyes and resulted in a very swift arrest as they were caught red-handed.'
He believes the public should accept CCTV as part of every day crime fighting.
'I don't think you have anything to fear if you are doing nothing wrong,' he said. 'The concept is to protect people and deter criminality and anti-social behaviour. If someone is tracked by CCTV or a particular area is monitored, it is because of a particular reason to do with prevention and detection of crime and not for voyeuristic purposes.'
He said the CSC, which brings together police, CCTV staff and the city centre manager all under the same roof, makes incident management much easier. It takes little time to gather representatives from each department to the incident control room to handle potential problems, such as an influx of visitors due to a football match.
'We are able to monitor the movements of potential troublemakers and have now got extensive coverage,' he said. 'The CCTV is amazing in terms of being the eyes of the sector. The quality of the images is fantastic. Working in the same building, the officers can pop in and ask 'can you just look at this area or have you seen that person?' This personal touch we didn't have before.'
The cameras have recently been extended down to The Groves.
However, Inspector Crowcroft is concerned police are not taking full advantage of the deterrent effect of the cameras.
'We need to let offenders know that we have them,' he said. 'We want to highlight the CCTV with signs.'
The CATS team welcome visitors and feedback and can be contacted on 01244 616 000, 616 008 or the Inspector on 01244 616 009. For all other enquiries call 01244 350 222.
Decision time on 'ugly' police HQ
DEVELOPERS will meet today to discuss the future of 'Chester's ugliest building' - which The Chronicle can reveal will be demolished to make way for a hotel, conference centre or arts centre.
Six short-listed schemes to replace the headquarters of the Cheshire Constabulary will be looked at today as developers try to pick a favourite to replace the 1960s building.
But, whatever happens, none of the interested parties want to keep the 10-storey building, which comes with a 132-space car park.
About 20 initial submitted schemes have been whittled down to six, which include plans for a hotel, conference space and an arts centre.
The biggest shock is the building - described as 'hideous' on the alternative tourism website The Knowhere Guide - looks to be on its way out of Chester for good.
An insider, who has seen the six short-listed plans, this week told The Chronicle: 'None of the six parties are in favour of retaining the building.
'None of the plans are sensational. They include bids for a possible hotel, conference facilities or an arts centre. It is theoretically possible that Chester City Council planners will not like any of these six schemes, but it is unlikely.'
News of the Chester HQ's future came this week as the Cheshire Constabulary unveiled its new headquarters in Winsford.
The building, in Woodford Park, includes a call management centre relocated from Warrington.
Many people will be glad to see the back of the Chester HQ, which has gable end concrete walls which have been dubbed as 'climbing walls'.
Culture vultures hope it will become a concert hall or art gallery.
The call for a concert hall comes as young people support the need for a public art gallery in Chester to showcase contemporary works.
A few years ago the Chester in Concert group lost out on Lottery funding, which instead led to the development of The Lowry centre in Salford Quays, Manchester.
The call for a concert centre, which could attract bands and promote gigs in Chester, is supported by Jackie Leech, chairman of the Chester in Concert group.
'This nationally recognised and unique site must not be squandered on yet more offices,' she said.
'We have illustrated the need for a large performance space in the city - remember the opera and jazz nights in the amphitheatre two years ago?
'We have maintained public support for our ambitions through well-supported social functions. We knew that we would need this voice when the opportunity to fight for Chester arose again.
'The Chester Chronicle has presented this case so powerfully - will the influential ears in the city listen at last?'
Chester City Council's planning brief for the site said: 'There is an opportunity to give a beneficial step change to the city's attraction as a tourist centre by encouraging the provision of a first-class hotel and multi-function conference centre.'
Proceeds from the sale of the Chester HQ will go toward frontline policing in the county.