Praia da Rocha Foto David Thomas

Crime prevention the key to maintaining Portugal as a safe country

Over the last 11 years (except for the Covid-19 period), Safe Communities Portugal has been fortunate enough to have attended the launch of the Algarve Safe Summer program, held annually around June in Faro.

This is where the PSP and GNR outline their crime reports for the preceding year and set out their programs for the current year, with focus on the Algarve summer season, in order to ensure safety for the large increase in tourists.

This program mainly includes the reinforcement of resources, the presence of police officers from Spain, France and Italy to help conduct patrols in tourist areas, as well as specific plans in terms of patrolling and crowd management for some of the larger events planned.

Attending this meeting, normally officiated by the Minister of Internal Affairs, and the General Commanding the GNR and National Director of the PSP, the general trend is that over the years there has been a decrease in overall reported crime and, in particular, in violent crime.

This year, the Minister stressed that he did not expect any safety problems in the Algarve during this current summer season.

In my 35 years in policing, having visited many countries, there is a clear perception and reality that Portugal is a safe country. This is supported by various surveys such as the Global Peace index, currently with Portugal in 7th place.

Importance of safety in attracting new residents and tourism

This feeling of safety, including that gained from personal experience from any previous visits, is the main determining factor in choosing a holiday destination. The World Tourism Organisation stated this 30 years ago and it is still very true today. Around three years ago, I held a meeting in London with ABTA, who represent the UK tourism industry, and they said the same. The Algarve has long been seen as a safe destination and a tremendous amount of work goes into trying to keep it that way – it does not come about by accident.

Perception, however, can change rapidly, much faster than the level of actual crime. Just one major incident, however isolated, can change people’s perception for the worse, often taken out of context by the media and, in particular, social media. When this does happen, it is vitally important that the authorities explain what happened, how it is being dealt with, the results of investigations once known and the context.

On the issue of perception, I recently read a quote that stated: “People feel that you can leave your handbag on the seat of your car and not have it broken into, or that you can leave your front door open and people won’t come in and nick all your stuff”.

All I can say is, if people are actually behaving in that way, this may be a reason why in the Algarve last year there were some 1,366 reported crimes of theft from vehicles, 1,037 opportunist thefts and 741 thefts from properties – some 17.3% of total crime reports.

For this reason, these are the crimes the police constantly remind people to take basic common-sense precautions in looking after one’s property. So don’t leave items on display in vehicles and ensure when you leave your home, you close your windows and doors.

Creating a safe society

A secure society does not come about by accident, and it takes a great deal of work to achieve and maintain a low incidence of crime. As any serving former police officer or those in the security industry will know, there are three elements in committing a crime: “opportunity, ability and desire”. A key factor of crime prevention is, therefore, removing the “opportunity”.

This involves every one of us, starting by looking after our property, and not giving the opportunity to criminals. This is why the police regularly conduct programs reminding people accordingly; such as the valuable work undertaken by the GNR Safe Elderly Program, the Safe Residents Program in the Algarve and the Safe Schools program, the latter focusing on issues such as the use of drugs.

Moving to Portugal

If you are planning to move here, although the crime level is one of the lowest in Europe, some areas (as in most countries) may have some local crime problems. One way to check is to ask people in the area, and the local bar can be a good way to find out this, but, on the other hand, do not give away too much about your personal circumstances to strangers. Renting a property in the area, if possible, will also give you a feeling about safety in that locality. Do your research.

Some areas near the coast may be very crowded with properties fully occupied during the summer, but the majority of properties may be unoccupied during the winter season. This is a factor as some thieves prefer to target such areas. Check if the area is served by the GNR Safe Residents Program, which provides suitable crime advice and ensures a fast response to crime emergencies.

Getting to know neighbours is perhaps the most important way to ensure that you have trouble-free relationships in the future. Of course, neighbours can change, but in rural villages they and their families may have been there for generations. Do they appear friendly and accommodating to foreigners?

Most problems we come across are due to the breakdown of relationships with neighbours. This can be barking dogs, noise pollution, failure to clean land to prevent the spread of fires, etc. For those living in more urban areas, it is wise to check if the neighbour rents the property to tourists, which could present problems with loud music parties, etc.

As we have always said at Safe Communities, if these messages can be got across in a positive way, it will not deter tourism or investment, but conversely encourage it – because people will feel safe. A safe country sends the right signals overseas and encourages tourism.

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 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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