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Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK
Walking the beat in Barnet
PC Steve Hepke on his beat
Time to stop and talk to members of the community

As the two constables walk through the housing estate, residents stop to say hello and have a chat.

The locals know the men on the beat, and for the most part seem pleased to see them.

One man dashes out of his house, to ask about a problem with his car tax, and is reassured he won't get into trouble.

This is the kind of community policing that many experts on law and order believe should be a key element in the fight against crime.

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Crime figures by key offence and region

Ask most members of the public, and they agree; they want to see more uniformed officers back on the beat.

But here on the Grahame Park estate at Colindale, many residents grumble that they don't see enough of their beat bobbies.

Last year it was very intimidating, local people were getting harassed, and people were getting mugged.

PC Dave Turner

But it's hardly surprising, as there are only two of them. They are responsible for patrolling one of the largest council estates in the country.

"To be honest, the area is too large to police effectively," said PC Steve Hepke, one of the two constables on the beat.

"Before I came here, there were six officers and a sergeant dedicated to patrolling this estate.

"There aren't enough officers to go round, that's the simple fact of the matter."

Six thousand residents live here, and it takes 15 minutes to walk from one end of the estate to the other. And this is just a part of their beat, which covers the whole of Colindale.

It is an area with an array of social problems. There is high unemployment, and a lot of single-parent families. Half the residents on the estate are under the age of 20, and the area has had serious drug problems.

Plain clothes approach

Last year, in response to open dealing of crack cocaine and heroin, the police decided to target the estate.

They found that many of the dealers were from outside the area. They came into the estate because they saw a ready market for their drugs, and thought that in the maze of alleyways and stairwells they would not be noticed.

But they were spotted on closed circuit television. And using undercover officers - operating at some risk to themselves - the police gathered evidence and made arrests.

PC Dave Turner
Open dealing on the estate has virtually disappeared

"We sent in police officers dressed as drug users who got to know them, got their confidence, and were able to buy drugs off them," says PC Dave Turner.

"Once we had enough evidence we mounted raids on various addresses and picked up people on the estate after they had just sold to our officers."

As a result, a dozen people were convicted and jailed for between 18 months and six years.

The atmosphere on the estate now is very different, according to PC Turner.

"Open dealing on the estate has virtually disappeared," he says.

"It has made a difference to the quality of life of people on the estate, because last year it was very intimidating. Local people were getting harassed, and people were getting mugged.

"So the quality of life has improved vastly for the people of the estate. They feel safe to walk through here now, whereas they didn't last summer."

The operation revealed the huge profits being made from selling drugs. When the home of one teenage dealer was searched, detectives found 15,000 in cash.

And the beat officers are in little doubt that much of the cash that fuels the drug trade comes from crime.

The vast majority of shoplifters who come through the doors of the custody suite at Colindale are known drug addicts," says PC Hepke.

"They are basically going out to steal and sell the property to fund the habit."

Centre of the action

As part of its effort to increase the police presence in such areas, the Met is planning to set up shop on the estate, taking over the premises of a former launderette.

The two PCs will both be based here, along with officers from neighbouring beats. The need for a more visible police presence was underlined by the way drug dealers moved onto the estate last year.

"They moved in and took over the area," says PC Turner.

"Unfortunately, community police officers were being taken away to do other things, because of manpower shortages, so they got a stranglehold and they felt safe to do their activities."

The decision by the police to move onto the estate is welcomed by Derek Rust, the neighbourhood manager for Barnet Council.

Extended family

"From our point of view it is absolutely essential," he says.

"As a council we have got a ten-year programme for regenerating this estate but some of the things that are very difficult to change are people's perceptions of Grahame Park being an unsafe place to live.

"We see ourselves as part of the extended police family here, and having something that works alongside us is really essential and it will help to change people's perceptions."

As one of the two beat officers on the estate, PC Dave Turner is in no doubt about what needs to be done.

"The priorities here and now are to make this estate a comfortable and easy place for people to live, somewhere they feel safe," he says.

"In the short term, that may be dealing with a robbery problem we have this week.

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Top 20 robbery blackspots

"In the long term, the way of dealing with it is having community officers who get to know the kids, get to know people on the estate, and build up that relationship with the community.

"In the last area where I worked, there was a group of kids growing up who still know me now. I like to think that knowing me for five or six years helped to steer them in the right direction."

The BBC's Peter Gould
"There are just two police officers to patrol an estate with a population of 6000"

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