Tackling sectarian property crime

The highly significant reductions in paramilitary activity over the past 12 years has not been matched by such a decline in what is described as “low-level” sectarian violence – assaults on individuals, homes, property and street confrontations. Yesterday evening a Ballycastle Chapel was severely damaged in an arson attack. The last two weeks have seen two Orange Halls destroyed. These are nothing new. For example in 1997 Protestant churches, Catholic Chapels, Orange Halls and GAA clubs all were targeted (scroll down). Since 1989, 245 Orange Halls have been attacked with 1 in 4 succeeding in completely destroying a hall. The police clear-up rate for attacks on Orange Halls is believed to be 2% (approximatley 5 out of 245) and there is no particular reason to believe that the clear-up rate for other such atacks is particularly better.

The peristence and in some instances growth of such “low-level” incidents has undermined confidence in the peace process. Also the continuation of the pattern would indicate that existing police approaches are not succeeding in preventing such attacks or catching those culpable. Anecdotal evidence would indicate a lack of commitment or thoroughness to the investigations. Is the low-level nature meaning a low priority attitude is taken? Could the PSNI learn from the approach of the USA authorities to church burnings? The compensation regime also causes problems, should it be reformed so that the victims of such attacks are not punished further?The 1990’s saw a growth in arson attacks on churches with black congregations. The Government’s response was to establish a specialised investigative team to tackle the issue. They developed a range of investigative approaches:

“ATF’s pursuit of arsonists has become institutionalized in the Bureau. Applying these statutes and ATF expertise to house of worship fires has become a top priority. Additionally, ATF has numerous support programs available in the investigation of church arsons. The National Response Team is available to respond within 24 hours and is comprised of agents with specialized training, chemists, canine handler and an explosives enforcement officer. ATF’s laboratory system is one of the finest in the world. With regional laboratories all over the United States, they are available to examine arson debris and detect accelerants and explosive materials.
ATF also utilizes computer technology in the investigation of church fires. The National Repository collects and analyses information on arson incidents and the suspected criminal use of explosives. The Advanced Serial Case Management System (ASCMe) provides on-scene assistance in the collection and collating of large amounts of evidence and data. ASCMe is invaluable in organizing the many pieces of evidence collected in the investigation of church fires. ATF responds to all fires at churches and makes a determination as to which of these resources are needed for a swift arrest and prosecution of the persons responsible.”

They also developed a profile of perpetrators of such attacks:

“The people burning down black churches in the South are generally white, male and young, usually economically marginalized or poorly educated, frequently drunk or high on drugs, rarely affiliated with hate groups, but often deeply driven by racism…”

In their first year of operation they achieved a clear-up rate of 18% (9 times the apparent PSNI rate). The work of the team also included a community relations approach.

The financial cost of such attacks is also a heavy burden. Official compensation is difficult to gain and claims on insurance policies lead to huge premiums or withdrawal of cover. As many of the attacks are on rural isolated halls the DUP is advocating the more relaxed procedures for compensation for damage to agricultural buildings be extended to cover community halls.