How safe is our town?

THIS week Bedford man Ravi Sandhu was sentenced to five years in prison for the manslaughter of father Kevin Harrison on a night out in Bedford.

In a Times & Citizen special report Hayley O’Keeffe investigates the issue of town centre safety and meets the people who help to make Bedford a safer place to have a night out.

The mother:

In 2007 a mother’s worst fears for her child became a real life nightmare for Fran Gill.

On Boxing Day her son Robert was on a night out in Bedford when he was attacked by youths who robbed and abused him before throwing him from Engineers Bridge to his death.

At the time of his murder and during the subsequent court case Fran and her husband Fred decided to tackle the issue head on and set up Bedford’s Street Angels team which has been running since 2008.

Fran said: “When Robert was a teenager and I went out with family or friends people would say ‘You don’t want to be in Bedford on your own after a certain time because it isn’t safe.’

“There was a sense that people felt it was a dangerous place.

“I think the atmosphere has improved since then. When we are out we always go to where the hotspots are, where people need help.”

Street Angels is an interdenominational Christian group which goes out in the town centre at night to offer help and assistance to those in need.

This help can range from handing out coffee in cold weather, giving flip flops to women in uncomfortable shoes or even lending a shoulder to cry on when events have got out of hand.

Throughout the night the group liaises with police and attends areas where the need is greatest.

Fran said: “When Robert was murdered it put a real sense of urgency into it and that year we started organising the group.

“Before we even knew that Rob had been murdered there was a sense that those boys had hurt their lives irreplaceably and I was blessed with a compassion for them.

“We had lost Rob but had a faith of where he was and we couldn’t be hurt. By being able to put it down I’m able to use all my energy for something else, like Street Angels.”

The CCTV:

On a night out in Bedford town centre it is not just your friends who are looking out for you.

Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week Bedford’s CCTV team have helped to keep the streets safe from their secret town centre location.

Since the April 2009, 1,843 arrests have been made with the support of Bedford CCTV, which is run by Bedford Borough Council.

The cameras have helped to cage criminals including murderers, rapists, kidnappers and robbers.

Monitoring those suspected of drugs offences, serious assaults and theft has also led to convictions.

Bedford’s CCTV system operators were awarded the title of CCTV Control Room Team of the Year in 2010, by the National CCTV User Group for their good work.

The Police:

Thousands of people use the pubs, clubs and restaurants in the town centre every weekend.

And although most people go home safely having had a good night out, the police step up patrols in key areas substantially.

The police also have partnerships with other groups involved in the night-time economy including licensees, door staff and the council.

If a venue has a disproportionate amount of crime action will be taken, this happened recently in the case of the Saints nightclub, in St Peters Street following a string of offences which started on the venue’s premises.

Inspector Mark Everett, who coordinate the police’s town centre activities, said: “There were only nine offences of very serious violence last year in the town centre, against 24 the previous year, and last year all violent crime was reduced by about 16 per cent from the previous year.

“I think most people who use the town centre at weekends would say they feel safer than a few years ago because of the all the measures that, as a partnership, we’ve all been able to put in place. Of course, everybody would like there never to be a single violent offence - and that’s why we put so much effort into working with the night time economy.”

He added: “Stories like Kevin’s are desperately sad, and the effect on his family has obviously been huge, but it’s important to put these types of incidents in context.”

The Campaign:

The Bed:Safe scheme was launched in 2003 and tackles alcohol related crime and disorder issues in Bedford Town Centre.

A steering group made up of Bedford Borough council, the police, the fire service, CCTV staff, taxi drivers, licensees and other interested organisations work together to find ways to make town safer.

These have included Nite Net radio, a system linking premises, door supervisors and police to the CCTV team and BAND, which ensures that if a rowdy reveller is banned from one nightspot they will not be welcome in any of them.

Bed:Safe has also brought in high visibility jackets for door staff and taxi marshalls which supervise night-time taxi ranks.

The Mayor:

This week Bedford’s Mayor, Dave Hodgson claimed that Bedford Borough Council will not become complacent in it’s efforts to keep a Bedford night out safe.

He said: “I was only with a Street Angel yesterday, he has been doing it for three and a half years and he thinks the perception is far from reality.

“Of course there are exceptions and when you have a murder it doesn’t appear that way but for the vast majority of people Bedford is a safe place to come for a night out.

“Street Angels, taxi marshalls, Bed Safe and the other organisations which the council supports do work. I can understand that people feel concerned but I think Bedford is a comparatively safe place for the night-time economy.”

He added: “We will never be complacent though and will continue to take our responsibilities very seriously.”

FACT BOX: Police tips on how to stay safe on a night out

1. Make a plan on how you are going to get home - and stick to it.

2. Drinking too much makes you vulnerable to crime and other consequences - enjoy your night out but don’t lose the ability to think clearly

Always make sure your cab home is a genuine cab - don’t accept lifts from people you don’t know.

3. You are relatively unlikely to be involved in a violent situation but if you see trouble developing, walk away from it and call the police. Don’t retaliate or intervene.

4. Leave valuable items at home.