In this special report, Current Affairs & Sport Editor Dylan White talks to Garda/UCC Liaison Ken O’Connell about crime rates around the vicinity of the UCC campus.
Cork is Ireland’s second largest city and attracts tourists from all around the world every year. It is home to one of Ireland’s oldest institutions of higher education and also the world’s first university to receive and later reaffirm its standing as a Green Flag campus for its on-going Environmental efforts, University College Cork. When we merge recorded crimes in Cork’s urban and rural areas, the county has just the ninth-highest crime rate of 21 Garda regions and notably recorded a decrease across all 14 offence categories in 2012, with crime down 8% overall.
Despite these facts, the area around UCC could be expected to feature as a crime blackspot in Cork City. Prior to its recent closure, the Gardaí at Barrack St. Garda Station had been liaising with UCC for many years principally through the Community Policing Unit of Garda John O’ Halloran and Garda/UCC Liaison Ken O’Connell. Both have been involved in many initiatives with the Students’ Union, General Services and University Staff in UCC. According to O’Connell, the link between UCC and An Garda Síochána “originated with the inception of Campus Watch which is a Garda/UCC driven crime prevention initiative similar to Neighbourhood Watch, but serves the needs and issues of the students and staff of the University”. The profile of the relationship has understandably “risen over the years due to the ever increasing population of the UCC student body and the varied impact this has had on both the student population and the surrounding residential areas,” he added.
Many critics have tended to sensationalise occurrences of crime amongst students, with most media coverage of crime statistics dwelling on national trends as opposed to incidences of crime at a more local level. O’Connell is receptive of the fact that where large universities exist and large groups of students congregate, problems can arise. However he believes that “the majority of issues wouldn’t really fall into the crime bracket or what would be traditionally recognised as crime”. He explains: “Most complaints or Garda actions stem from issues resulting from alcohol related public disorder. Crime exists in all facets of society but alcohol related incidents are very prevalent in areas that host colleges because of the large numbers of people socialising at the one time, and the behaviour tends to impact more on local residents”.
Recent statistics indicate that crime rates have declined each year since 2008 on a national level. The overall reduction of crime in Ireland is surprising as it runs counter to the logic that suggests crime figures would rise in a period of austerity. However, national crime statistics never present a complete picture of the true extent of crime at a more local level. They “offer little or no assistance to local policing plans” as every Garda district is faced with different challenges. “From being on the street Gardaí are all too aware of how austerity affects crime in their local districts. Opportunist theft crimes of iPhones and bags are definitely on the increase, and burglars these days tend to target money or items such as jewellery that can quickly be turned into cash,” O’Connell said.
The vicinity of the UCC campus in the past year has been subjected to several incidents of “thefts and indeed burglaries, often occurring during or in the aftermath of house parties where no responsibility is taken for who comes into the accommodation, and failing to secure the property afterwards. The majority of crime is presented as an opportunity to the criminal. Austerity can affect crime in the way it affects the resources that fight crime, while also taking more people out of the workforce and sometimes to a life of crime to make their money. But opportunity is the catalyst for crime to happen. Reducing opportunity significantly reduces crime,” he added.
First year students often fall foul to the Public Order Act or Drinking in Public bye laws simply because there may not be as well informed of the implications of drinking on the street or being intoxicated in a public place.
In a survey of 100 people conducted by Motley Magazine, 41% said they had witnessed a criminal offence in the vicinity of UCC in the past year, and 17% said they had been the victim of crime in that one year period. Public order offences and damage to property appear to be of greatest concern to those surveyed.
When asked about the variety of crime in the neighbourhoods around UCC, O’Connell said: “I wouldn’t like to scaremonger by saying [one offence or place in particular] is dangerous because that is how such advice is often perceived. Suffice to say Public Order issues are very prevalent in the area, and invariably where people are intoxicated ‘opportunity thefts’ increase. Cork is not a dangerous place by any means, but if you leave yourself open crime can happen”. He went on to say that “there are good and bad apples in every basket. Good use of common sense and attention to personal safety and property safety is usually sufficient in deterring crime. There are no ‘no go’ areas around the campus of UCC, or in Cork City for that matter. Crime can happen anywhere”.
Many crimes are not reported due to a number of factors including the perceived non-seriousness of the crime, the financial loss involved and beliefs about whether Gardaí are in a position to do anything about the crime as well as preconceived notions about the likely success of criminal proceedings. Of those surveyed, 60% said they don’t have confidence in the Gardaí’s ability to resolve crime. “We would encourage all victims of crime to report all crimes to An Garda Síochána. Not all crimes are solvable but 100% of unreported crimes are unsolvable,” O’Connell said.
With the excessive consumption of alcohol during Freshers Week and Raise and Give (RAG) Week in particular, there is evidently a need for Gardaí to be extra vigilant around the vicinity of the UCC campus. 67% of those surveyed believe Gardaí need to be more vigilant on student nights in the College Road area. O’Connell noted that “no particular group criminally offends more than others. Offences from international students are minimal. First year students often fall foul to the Public Order Act or Drinking in Public bye laws simply because there may not be as well informed of the implications of drinking on the street or being intoxicated in a public place”.
The recent launch of three new Garda, UCC and Cork City Council hi-tech, high-definition digital cameras with superb zoom, night vision and 360-degrees rotation capabilities that can pick up activity from a long distance and prompt an immediate Garda response, is part of a wider crackdown on anti-social behaviour around Cork’s university quarter. The cameras are located at strategic locations around the College Road area and are connected to the city’s wider bank of some 30 Garda CCTV cameras monitored around the clock by Gardaí based in the control room at Anglesea St. Garda Station. “We started this process as far back as 2001. It was spearheaded by the then Sergeant of Barrack St. Garda Station, Sergeant John Deasy, and the Community Gardaí at Barrack St., in association with the local resident associations and UCC authorities. The different delays that have occurred over the last 12 years were not in the control of those pushing the initiative,” O’Connell said. He also believes the cameras are of “high quality” and “will aid in the detection of crime and incidents of public disorder, while also helping local residents and students alike”.
O’Connell added: “The relationship between UCC and An Garda Síochána is strong and cooperative, and as long as this continues it will serve an effective purpose. The UCC/Garda/Residents Forum that has been in existence for the past six years also allows all the interested stakeholders to sit around the meeting table and try to achieve a common goal. The area surrounding the campus is subject to special impact patrols, and this attention is considerably stepped up during Freshers Week and RAG Week. Also students are advised on personal safety and crime prevention during orientation”.
Although there may “not necessarily” be any opportunities to further the relationship between UCC and An Garda Síochána in the foreseeable future, O’Connell “would like to see [Cork] City Council take a more active role in helping to police the Street Drinking problem that exists around the campus of UCC”. He added: “I would call for the revenue collected from Street Drinking fines, (which is €75 per offence) to be ring-fenced for dealing specifically with this problem. An increase in fines can both eradicate the problem over time, while also proving to be self-financing”.