The number of police stations in Northern Ireland has been cut by two-thirds over the last two decades, new figures obtained by the News Letter reveal.
Here we set out in detail – town by town and village by village – the dramatic loss of the police estate since the Troubles began receding in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Using Freedom of Information laws, the News Letter has learned that in or around November 1999 (the furthest date police were able to provide information for), there were 141 stations in Northern Ireland.
At the same time in 2007, this figure had fallen to 111.
And then by the same time in 2017 it was 47.
And although the PSNI had no figures dating back to 1999 for how many police stations were open to the public then, it said 17 of the 47 existing stations today have no public opening hours at all, and just one of them – Musgrave in central Belfast – is publicly-accssible 24 hours a day.
The PSNI have said that policing “is not about buildings”, and that the notion of the publicly-accessible police station was “conceived long before the digital age”.
And whilst some councillors have spoken about the loss of the everyday ‘bobby on the beat’ such closures have meant for their communities (see sidebar), both the current and past head of the Police Federation in Northern Ireland (PFNI) said what matters more than bricks-and-mortar is a shortage of manpower.
In 1997, there were 8,485 full-time police officers; as of the end of January this year, that figure stood at 6,688.
Mark Lindsay, chairperson of the PFNI, said: “This Federation is more concerned with reduced numbers in the PSNI than the closure of what, in effect, were many part-time or little used police stations.
“We understand the need to instil public confidence by having a visible presence, but a police station with a light on and no one in attendance was not effective reassurance.”
IT’S NOT ABOUT BUILDINGS, SAYS TOP OFFICER:
Assistant chief constable Alan Todd said: “The number of stations has changed considerably over recent years, but so too has the way policing operates... Policing today isn’t about buildings; it is about officers who are working with the community in order to protect them, prevent crime and detect criminals.
“Nearly all policing services are now delivered outside of stations. Surveys show that footfall to police stations has greatly reduced as people choose to access our services in different ways.”
He added that “police enquiry offices were conceived long before the digital age”, and that the public are now using “a number of digital platforms to contact and engage with us – and so we are focusing on these channels as we design for the future”.
However, both the PSNI’s Twitter and Facebook accounts each state that they are not monitored 24/7, and that crime cannot be reported via Facebook.
Asked about this, the assistant chief constable responded: “We advise the public to report crime via the non-emergency number 101, or 999 in an emergency, which they can do at any time of the day or night. Crime can be also be reported via the PSNI website – www.psni.police.uk/CrimeReportFormPage/”
IMPACT ON COMMUNITIES:
One of the many small towns afftected by station closures was Comber in Co Down.
UUP councillor Jim Fletcher said since it closed about four years ago, “the word on the street is that everybody misses the local officer walking up and down”.
“There’s not the same police presence there used to be,” he said.
However, besides the issue of the extra “confidence” that visible police brings, he said the change “hasn’t been dramatic or traumatic”.
In Moira meanwhile, UUP councillor Jim Dillon painted a dire picture since its station shut, which he said happened a couple of years back.
He said: “The impact obviously has been a deterioration of the resolving of crime. Crime is up as I understand it
“Nobobdy ever sees them. It used to be of you had a problem you phoned the local police station and it was dealt with. Now I’m not so sure it’s dealt with efficiently. Now it could take a week.”
THE FULL LIST:
Here is a list of are all stations which were open in 1999.
Those in bold were still open last November, the latest available time when data is available.
Those underlined have public opening hours.
•North Queen Street
Rest of NI:
•Dromore, Co Down
•Dromore, Co Tyrone
•Middletown, Co Armagh
•Newry (Corry Square)
•Strand Road, Londonderry