By Annette Chrysostomou
Community police officers are on duty this summer, providing extra reassurance – and useful tips – for people worried about their homes being burgled when they go on holiday.
They patrol neighbourhoods discretely on foot, in cars or on bicycles and motorbikes, and their work is in part responsible for a significant drop in crime rates in recent years.
But most people come into direct contact with them when they knock on doors for a chat and to hand out awareness brochures on crime prevention. The leaflets have simple and practical advice on how to protect yourself from a range of offences, among them break-ins, thefts from homes, cars, hotel rooms and beaches.
But it is the personal touch that is probably the most reassuring.
“When a policeman turned up at my door the other day my first thought was had my teenage son been in trouble, but he quickly put me at my ease and was so polite, asking if I had a few minutes to spare,” said Susan Matheou, a Nicosia resident. “My Greek isn’t so good but he had excellent English.”
His personal experience of dealing with crime made it easier to relate to and take on board what is obvious advice that far too many of us ignore.
“Like never to leave your front door key under a plant pot or a door mat for another member of your family if you’re going out,” Matheou told the Sunday Mail. “And he said most cars in Cyprus are stolen outside kiosks when people leave their engines running to pop inside for a few minutes.
“Because Cyprus seems so crime-free that’s something I often do. But I won’t now.”
Her experience would be welcomed by the head of crime prevention, Christoforos Hangoudis. “The idea is to develop a personal contact,” he told the Sunday Mail. “Police are often seen as the enemy because they fine people but they are not the enemy. Some residents don’t care but a lot develop a mutual trust with the officers.”
Currently, 75 of these officers cover 129 rural and urban communities in Cyprus, serving a population of 707,687.
The brochures which community police officers hand out on home visits are in English and Greek but some Chinese and Russian speaking officers have also been employed.
But the aim is not only to inform the public but also to receive information from residents on what criminal activities they have observed in their neighbourhood.
By increasing the physical presence of the officers in the community, the police aim to promote public security as well as at reducing crime and public disorder.
For this job, any police officer with more than three years of service can apply. Selected candidates take part in a three-week training programme at the police academy in communication skills, public relations, presentation and teaching skills. Apart from theoretical courses, trainees also undergo a two-day practical training course under the guidance of operative officers.
Perhaps you have never seen any of the officers? If they haven’t knocked at your door it is probably because there are not enough personnel. Lakatameia for example, a big neighbourhood in Nicosia, currently employs only two officers for the job but according to recent research eight are needed.
The island was initially divided into 206 sections to be eventually manned by as many police officers.
“The goal is to have an officer for each section, so we need another 131 officers”, Hangoudis said. “But there is a problem with personnel due to the crisis and we cannot hire people at the moment.”
The lack of personnel also results in the neighbourhood watch programme not working as well as it should in some areas.
“It doesn’t really work because there is a lack of communication between the municipality and the people. It’s the community police officers who run the programme and in areas where there isn’t one the results are not the same,” the head of the crime prevention office explained.
Those residents who have not been contacted by an officer can contact their local police station in order to request to meet the one for their area.
Community police officers have many duties apart from patrolling neighbourhoods and they work in two shifts which cover the hours from 6.30am until 1am.
The unit arranges talks in schools about various subjects such as graffiti, cybercrime and fireworks safety. All any private or public school has to do is to invite them. “They have to be interested, if they are not interested there is not point,” Hangoudis said
Police also visit businesses, shops and kiosks and organise events like fairs for children, blood donations and visits to nursing homes.
The ultimate goal is of course to reduce crime, and it is working to some extent. According to statistics by the crime prevention office, in 2011 8,500 serious crimes were recorded. By 2015 that number had decreased to 6,000.
A reduction of crime can only be achieved when all work together, the head of the community police office said.
“Without the cooperation of the public, any measures we take will not be enough to achieve the desired results,” said Hangoudis. “We believe that crime prevention is not only the responsibility of the police. It is everyone’s”
Before you leave the house:
Make it look as though your house is occupied.
Set on your burglar alarm, as well as the CCTV if you have one.
In case you do not own a safe do not leave large sums of money or valuables in the house. They are best left in a bank safe.
Enlist the help of a neighbour, friend or relative to keep an eye on your property.
To protect your home:
Lock up your house before you leave even if you are going to be away for a brief period. Keep shutters and curtains closed so burglars cannot look inside the home.
Fit doors with a door chain and a spy hole.
Fit strong locks to external doors and windows.
Never give your house keys to cleaners or other persons.
Never leave a spare key in a hiding place such as under the doormat or a flowerpot.
Keep photos of valuables in case they are stolen.
Try to get to know your neighbours and make sure you build a relationship of mutual support and trust with them.
Keep your tools and ladders securely locked up.
To prevent theft from vehicles:
Park your car in your garage as much as possible or in busy, well-lit spaces.
Lock doors and windows and activate any security devices, even if you have parked your car in front of your house.
Do not tempt thieves by leaving bags, briefcases, cell phones or any other items in the car even if it is locked.
Don’t leave the engine running when you leave the driver’s seat. Always take the keys out of the ignition even if you are going to be away for just two minutes.
When on holiday:
Avoid leaving valuables in your room – keep them in the hotel safe.
Do not carry all your money, credit cards and passport in your handbag.
Do not leave wallets, watches, cameras, mobile phones etc. on the beach.
Should anything suspicious come to your attention, call the citizen’s telephone line: 1460