An engaged community means a safer community

As we look forward to 2015, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the progress that has been made concerning the fight against crime over the last few years and the challenges that we all face in maintaining the Algarve as a safe place to live and visit.

Overview of 2014

The Algarve has seen a sharp drop in crime since 2008; in fact by some 22% compared with 11% for Portugal as a whole. People seem to be more reassured in terms of public safety, certainly compared with the difficult period experienced in 2009-10.

I am often asked why crime has decreased, especially during a period of recession when the opposite was to be expected. It is a question I have put to the police and basically it can be attributed to a number of factors.

The first of these is simply the fact that many of the criminals – certainly those responsible for the more serious crimes – were from other countries and are now either in prison or have gone elsewhere. The prison population in Portugal continues to increase with some 20% being foreigners.

Secondly, there is little doubt that the police here are effective in tackling serious crime. During 2014 we have seen some really excellent examples of their work by bringing to justice those involved in international drug trafficking, corruption and robberies, some of which go back a number of years.

From my understanding, there is now more exchange of information between the different police forces, both within Portugal and with their counterparts overseas, than previously.

Another factor is the success of the police special programmes and I would highlight here the GNR Safe Residence Programme for those living in the rural areas.

Started in 2010, over 5,500 properties are now registered with this programme throughout the Algarve, providing a high level of community policing to those residents concerned. Evidence suggests that this has not only helped in terms of ensuring a fast GNR response to emergencies, but has also provided reassurance to residents in those areas as well as some deterrence to property crime.

A further factor is that people have more crime awareness, are more actively engaged in crime prevention and understand more about the work of the police. Efforts have been made to bring about closer engagement with the foreign community, because an “engaged community means a safer community”.

Challenges for 2015

Although we celebrate the lowest crime levels for a number of years, there are undoubtedly challenges to be faced if we are to maintain the Algarve as a safe destination during 2015 and the years ahead.

In my experience, the nature and level of crime can change in a relatively short period of time either as a result of local or external conditions – so it is always good to be prepared.

Portugal has over 1000kms of coastline and its location in Europe means that it is exposed to both international drug trafficking and people smuggling. With the increasing demand in cocaine in northern Europe as well as record opium production in Afghanistan, tackling drug trafficking will continue to be a major challenge during 2015.

Another priority is effectively tackling corruption. 2014 was a year where corruption became front page news on a number of occasions with the arrest of the former Prime Minister José Sócrates and those involved in the Golden Visa scandal. These are the types of crime that Portugal can ill afford, as it presents a massive drain on the economy as well as damaging Portugal’s international standing and reputation.

Whereas the police and prosecutors have done excellent work in exposing this and bringing to justice those involved, Portugal badly needs a comprehensive and overarching anti-corruption strategy, embracing corruption awareness, prevention and enforcement. Only then will this become a thing of the past.

Cybercrime is without doubt the fasted growing crime globally. Respecting no boundaries, this type of crime means that you or I can become a victim by a “click of a button” from someone we will never see on the other side of the world.
In the last week or so, cyber criminals have hacked into Sony pictures, the South Korean nuclear power industry and North Korea was plunged into an internet darkness just before Christmas for reasons which are as yet unclear. So if cyber criminals can do this to national governments we as individuals are easy targets!

Looking back at crime trends during 2014, the crime of arson involving those setting fire to the countryside is something I wish to highlight. Needless to say, setting fire to forests not only results in an “environmental tragedy” but also puts at risk residents and visitors to the areas concerned, as well as the brave firemen and personnel from other agencies that have to tackle these disasters.

Luckily, the weather conditions in 2014 meant that the number of fires was the lowest for a number of years but this may not be the same for 2015. It is a sobering fact that in the Algarve just 1% of all wildfires are a result of natural causes; the remaining 99% being caused either deliberately or through negligence.

Priorities for 2015

Taking into account the above issues, Safe Communities Algarve will be according priority in 2015 to wildfire prevention and environmental protection; cybercrime and computer security; adopting new initiatives in encouraging the public to report suspicious activities, as well as monitoring crime trends and providing crime prevention advice as necessary.

As a major tourist attraction it is essential that the Algarve remains a safe and secure destination, so we will also be working closely with other agencies including Turismo do Algarve to develop appropriate initiatives accordingly.

We have a number of plans to further develop Safe Communities Algarve and these will be outlined shortly. We have also been discussing ideas with the Polícia Judiciária concerning the reporting of suspicious activities and these are expected to be outlined in January.

Safe Communities Algarve wishes both residents and visitors a Very Happy, Safe and Prosperous New Year.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação Safe Communities Algarve, the first association of its type in Portugal. 913 045 093