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Keeping our community safe

Safe Communities Portugal receives an ever-increasing amount of information concerning crime. A piece that caught my eye last week, however, was an anonymous report of drug trafficking in the north of Portugal. The information was detailed, giving the exact location where this was alleged to be taking place. The information was duly passed to the GNR Headquarters and forwarded to the Commander of the area concerned. The information was processed and, within a few days, an operation mounted resulting in the arrest of the suspect and the seizure of a sizeable amount of drugs.

The above illustrates a win-win situation (except for the culprit) in that the neighbourhood is now safer as a result of this action, the potential of drug-related crime reduced, the anonymity of the person who made the report has been fully protected and he/she does not have to become involved in the police/court process as a witness.

But what is a safe community? There are a number of definitions but this one from New Zealand, arguably one of the safest countries in the world, is my favourite: “A safe community is a liveable community, where people can go about their daily activities in an environment without fear, risk of harm or injury.”

The next question is: What should you do if you are aware of some activity, which you suspect is illegal and is causing harm to you, your family or others, or has the potential to do so? Unfortunately, often people decide to do nothing thus letting it continue to the point that someone is harmed. People then blame the police for not doing something to prevent this, whereas the situation may have been avoided if that information had been passed to police in the first place.

It reminds me about a case in the central Algarve a year or so ago, when a person was a victim of an assault, did not report it and a few days later another woman was robbed nearby. Even then the second victim was reluctant to report this as she was too busy! Such a lack of civic responsibility puts others at risk and allows crime to continue.

What to look out for

Basically, we are all the “eyes and ears” of our communities and we probably know more than anything else if something appears suspicious. As an example, I remember indirect information received from a house cleaner in the Algarve, who noticed large bundles of bank notes in a person’s house she was cleaning; a short while later the person was arrested for running a major prostitution network!

Clearly, any strangers in the area who may be looking over garden fences or driving slowly in a car past your house may arouse suspicion. It is important in these instances to note the description of the person in as much detail as possible. The same goes with vehicles. Noting a car registration number can make a major difference. There have been many cases solved and other crimes prevented in this way, as the police are able to check these and, of course, details of the owner. If it appears suspicious, write it down at the time to use as a reference.

If, for instance, you notice a suspicious gathering of people at regular intervals in a specific location where you suspect drugs are being sold, then pass this on. If you see on a beach a person suspiciously photographing children, pass it on. If you are aware of people making door-step calls on the elderly pretending to be from CTT or EDP, then pass this on. If you notice someone behaving suspiciously at an airport terminal, then pass it on to police there. These are just a few examples.

How to report suspicious activity

There are a number of ways to do this. Firstly, anyone can contact us at Safe Communities Portugal directly, on [email protected], and we will pass it on immediately to the police in the area concerned. The more detailed the information the better. Please note, however, that if you are a victim of crime in what is known as “semi-public crimes” (including theft, assault or criminal damage) then only you can report this.

Of course, if the situation is urgent then people should always call the emergency number 112, or if registered with the GNR Safe Residence Programme (SRP) then the special contact number you have been given.

Another way if you are registered with the SRP is to simply contact your local SRP team. They have detailed knowledge of your area and will keep the source of the information confidential.

Alternatively, if you are in the Lisbon district or in the Algarve, use the online facility “Reporting Suspicious Activity”, available on our websites. This opens up a direct channel with police in those areas and you can simply enter the information you wish to report.

The last option is that you can call the police directly at the local police station, but sometimes this can be more difficult, if the recipient does not speak your language and you do not speak Portuguese.

Very serious crimes, including homicide, those involving firearms, child pornography or money laundering information, can be passed directly to the Polícia Judiciária (their English is good) or to us at Safe Communities Portugal and we will pass it on. This can be anonymous, although if you are witness of a serious crime then the Polícia Judiciária may need to contact you.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of options available and some of these protect your anonymity.

What happens next?

The first thing to be aware of is that you may not hear anything from the police or receive a reply if passed directly to police, by phone or email. This is something I would like to see, but does not always happen. If you report to Safe Communities Portugal, all messages are replied to. In the case of direct police reports, this does not mean that nothing has happened – just the contrary.

All information is examined and processed. It helps build up a database of suspicious activities in the areas concerned and is cross-matched with other information and on-going invitations. So even if the information is incomplete, it can form part of the jigsaw that leads to the arrest of a person who may be about to commit a crime, or has committed a crime and may commit others.

If information is received in areas under the jurisdiction of the GNR, but involves a location under the remit of the PSP, then information is passed on and vice-versa. If you have given your name and contact details and more assistance is required, police will contact you.

Will I get a reward?
Yes, you will; namely the satisfaction that you have done your part in keeping yourself, family, neighbours and your community safe – the best reward of all.

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 www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com here in the 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, with a new website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve