Archive for February, 2012

Why don’t you write me?

The paperwork cabinet at Walsall Police Station. To give an idea of its scale, if three of these cabinets were stacked on top of each other they'd be as tall as the Eiffel Tower.

Paperwork. Red tape. Officers spending more time pushing pens than pushing criminals into court rooms. It’s something I’ve written about before and not necessarily as much as an issue as some would have you believe.

From this week, however, we’re going to be using even less ink thanks to a new system that’s being introduced to help save us time and allow us to stay out on patrol longer.

As you may know from reading this blog or keeping your eye on the news, West Midlands Police are looking at saving £126 million over the next four years.

To do so we’ve been thinking hard about how savings can be made and reevaluating our way of working to ensure that it’s a efficient as possible.

One of the changes we’ve made is to how we document crimes. The new system, being introduced across the West Midlands at the moment and live in Walsall as of yesterday, is a good example of how we’re adapting to help cut out unnecessary processes.

To illustrate the change, here is the process we used to go through to record crimes -

  1. Complete a paper crime report at the scene of an incident
  2. Call up help desk, give basic details to obtain crime number
  3. Take crime report to station, have it checked by supervision
  4. Scan crime report to our fancy electronic document tracking program
  5. Place crime report in tray for collection
  6. Crime reports taken to admin department where a staff member would read it (hard if in my handwriting) and input the information into our crime recording system
  7. Crime report then filed in a warehouse that looks a little like the one in the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc.

The same process would be followed for investigation records etc on which we record our actions at the scene, what needs to be done further and identifies any offenders etc.

Under the new system, we’ll be doing the following -

  1. Phone up the Crimes Service Team whilst at scene, give details that would have been on crime report to operator who enters them directly into the crime reporting system – crime number issued on spot

Details for the investigation record will also be recorded over the phone and if we need to add anything to it ourselves, we can log into the system and make any additions we need to ourselves. No fiddly forms, no “PC Stanley, your writing is truly terrible” and no more ink pens exploding all over the place.

As a far simpler system, the advantages are clear and it’s going to be nice not coming to the end of a shift knowing that there are crime reports and investigation records to be completed as it’ll all have been sorted at the scene.

As the crime report has always been one of our core forms, it will certainly be odd never having to fill in a ‘WC200′ again. As a geek I still remember fondly the first one I completed which was to do with a truck stolen from Erdington Road near Aldridge.

I look at it this way though – the less time I’m filling in forms the more time I’m spending trying to prevent the need to complete them in the first place and in that respect, everyone’s a winner.

Everyone knows about it, from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell…

Social media gives us an invaluable capability to distribute important information to thousands of people instantly.

As someone who’s been using social media for a while now, I’m always keen to promote it as a great channel of communication through which the police can keep in touch with the public.

I’ve written about why we use social media in the past and my views have only strengthened since then – it’s an incredibly valuable tool for us and we use it in a variety of different ways.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or maybe if you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll see how I try and use social media to break down the barriers between police and public, to educate, inform and entertain.

A couple of weeks ago I was involved in an incident which I think really highlights why social media is something that can’t be ignored when it comes to effective policing.

Officers on my shift had taken a report of an extremely high risk missing person. We had genuine reason to be concerned over her immediate safety and to make matters worse, had few leads as to where we might find her.

Alongside the actions that we’d take as due course – searches of open ground, use of dog units and the helicopter – we knew that publicity would play a crucial role in locating the person.

I’d been asked to help deliver leaflets to local pubs and shops but due to the time at which we began this exercise, after eleven at night, it was clear that we’d not reach many people this way. We’d not be able to issue a press release until the morning and short of knocking on doors, there weren’t many options for alerting the public.

This was where having in my pocket a device that could immediately send a message to 3,500 predominately local people was absolutely invaluable. Within minutes I was able to upload a photo of our missing person onto Twitter with her details and ask that should she be seen, we be contacted immediately.

Within an hour or so of putting the update onto Twitter, my appeal had been forwarded on by dozens of other followers across the social network. I worked out afterwards that the combined number of followers that it reached through being forwarded on was over 27,000. The photo itself was viewed more than 600 times.

In the same hour we distributed posters to a handful of petrol stations and the few pubs that were still open. I can’t imagine that more than a hundred people would have seen them all night.

In this example, the missing person was found safe and well the following day. Publicity had been further aided by appeals being made to the 30,000 followers of the official West Midlands Police Twitter account, our 10,000 Facebook subscribers and on the appeals section of the website which attracts several hundreds of thousands of views every month.

The scope for reaching thousands of people instantly, for responding to incidents in real time and not having to wait on traditional forms of communication to catch up with events shows how important social media can be to delivering an effective service.

In being able to serve the public – and crucially a vulnerable person – in such an effectual manner shows that when it comes to social media, the argument against our involvement is a very hard one to make.

Limehouse police knocking at my door, twelve black boots on my bedroom floor… (Part two of two)

Putting all his body weight behind what is already a fairly hefty chunk of steel, the officer swings the ram into the door. The lock claws at the door frame as it gives way in a shower of splinters. The ram is then cast aside and officers begin to flood the premises.

The first thing that officers will be looking to do once inside is to locate all of the persons within and ensure that they have no opportunity to destroy evidence. Each room will be searched for occupants, including cupboards and under beds, and all those found will be gathered and secured in one area.

Probably still a little shell shocked from their unexpected wake up call the officer in charge of the warrant will explain to the occupants why the warrant is being executed and give them a chance to examine a copy of the warrant itself. A search book will then be started listing where the warrant is taking place, who is present and what, if anything, has been recovered.

With the occupants of the premises sat in one place the search can begin to earnest. Each room will be thoroughly and methodically sifted through with anything that may be linked to an offence likely to be seized as evidence. The warrant specifies what we are able to search for and are searching techniques need to be proportionate to what we’re looking for. A warrant authorising us to search for a stolen 52″ flat screen television, as an example, would mean that we couldn’t search kitchen draws as it’s rather unlikely that we’d find the television inside.

When we find something of interest that we’re going to seize we make a note of where it was found, along with the time, and enter this information into the search book.

Having finished our search we’ll then transport any arrested suspects back to the police station taking with us our seized property. The prisoners will be booked on in the cells whilst other officers will begin the process of booking their recovered evidence into the property store and writing their production statements. This task finished we can then evaluate any useful intelligence that we’ve gained from the raid and begin dealing with the prisoners themselves.

Drugs warrants are a great way for us to tackle the wider issues caused by drug abuse and provide a visible sign to the public that we are taking action to clamp down on the dealers. In addition they have a habit of making other criminals in the area quite edgy about continuing their dodgy operations. Will I be next they begin to wonder? Should they persist to flout the law, the answer is a very loud yes.

Limehouse police knocking at my door, twelve black boots on my bedroom floor… (Part one of two)

The enforcer rips the door from its hinges at the first attempt. “Police! Police! Stay where you are!” yell the officers who pile into the address immediately afterwards, flooding each room and securing exit points. A handful of rather shocked occupants are led through into the living room, their hands secured to the front with cuffs. They are sat down and after a brief pregnant pause an officer comes in holding a large quantity of cash, scales and a sizable bag of white powder to boot. Another successful drugs raid then.

What goes into a police drugs raid then? In this, the first of a two part special on the subject, I look at what’s involved in getting us to the front door of a suspected drug dealer.

Knock, knock...

A drugs warrant, as with any other form of warrant, starts off with good intelligence. Neighbourhood officers have a good idea of who’s likely to be causing problems on their beat and are supported by members of the public who’d rather not have a drug dealer lurking around at the corner of their street. Information flows in from a variety of sources including Crimestoppers and gives us a fantastic idea of who might require a visit from the battering ram.

Having collected, collated and analysed information on a suspect, we then sit down and start work on a plan for the operation. This takes into account what resources there are available, what issues we might be likely to encounter at an address and if there are any risks to our safety that we might need to prepare for. Are there, for example, dogs at the premises that we might need help with? Are there children present? What do our suspect’s criminal records tell us about how they might react?

Once it has been put together, we’ll then get our plan risk assessed by a trained member of staff who will decide whether we are going to be able to execute the warrant without putting anybody’s welfare at undue risk. Warrants can be dangerous operations by their very nature but by evaluating them beforehand we try and do the best we can to ensure that every officer entering an address has roughly the same proportion of limbs when they emerge again.

With the risk assessor’s stamp of approval, we’re then in a position to approach a magistrate to ask him or her to endorse our warrant thereby giving us the legal power to enter an address. To do this we have to visit the court, swear an oath, and are then asked questions about how we plan to carry out the operation. If the magistrate is happy with the grounds for executing the warrant he or she will sign it. We then have a period of one month to go and put the door in.

It’s at this point that we have to decide when it is best to go and execute our warrant. This will depend on our resources, when it is most likely that our targets will be in and when we are likely to have the best chance of catching them with controlled substances.

Once a date and time has been picked, we’ll then gather together our kit and sit for a briefing during which the plan for the warrant is laid out in detail. Every officer’s role in the operation will be clearly explained so that as they head out to the address everyone is clear who is searching where, who they’re expecting to find at the address and what they’re looking for.

Forcing entry to a premises is often preferred to simply knocking as it presents less opportunity for those inside to quickly destroy evidence. The shock of hearing the front door tumbling into the hallway in splinters is usually enough to stun even the quickest thinking criminal.

Briefing complete a small convoy of police vehicles emerges from the station car park and snakes its way to the target address. With people positioned to the rear, method of entry trained officers run up to the front door and draw back the ram ready to strike.

You want me? Well come on and break the door down…

A historial image of West Midlands officers forcing entry at Dudley Castle. Probably.

“Can you make an immediate for me?” asked the controller over the radio. A male had sent messages to his girlfriend suggesting he was about to hurt himself and we needed to attended his flat to make sure he was alright. With life and death potentially hanging in the balance, we spared no time in getting to the location. Blue lights blazing a path through the night and the speedo reaching the higher end of the scale, we soon skidded to a halt outside the man’s apartment block and ran inside.

I used my best ‘police knock’ to draw the attention of anyone inside whilst my partner went around the outside to look in through the windows. We knew the male was inside but there was no sign of life. The control room advise us their last update suggested the male had placed a plastic bag over his head.

Still no answer at the door and so the sense of urgency takes over – I take a few steps back and deliver a forceful kick to the wooden door panel. Resolutely it stays still so I deliver another blow, then another and another. The gap begins to widen as the lock loses its grip of the plaster around the frame. Another kick and it’s nearly given way, one more and it slams home against the wall followed shortly after by myself and my partner as we storm the flat and locate the male.

This is a good example of our powers of entry being put into action. S. 17 of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act defines the conditions under which we can legally enter a premises. Saving life and limb is only one example of a range of very useful, commonly used powers that see us breaking down doors around the West Midlands on a daily basis.

Other than saving a person’s life, the principle reason that we’ll need to enter a premises is to affect the arrest of a wanted person. S. 17 gives clear indications of the circumstances under which we can do this. They are either that we have been granted a warrant to arrest that person or that the person is guilty of a serious crime, otherwise known as an ‘indictable‘ offence. We have to be able to state why we believed a person was at an address prior to using our powers to go in as otherwise the entry could be seen as unlawful.

In addition to these circumstances, S. 17 furthermore gives us the power to force an entry to apprehend a person who we are either pursuing or is unlawfully at large. Under these conditions, the offence that a person has committed is not relevant – only that rather than stay and talk to us a suspect has decided to take flight and seek refuge from the long arm of the law.

S. 17 also makes reference to some more specific conditions that have had attached their own powers of entry designed to help us achieve specific goals. We are given the power, for example, to force entry and arrest a person who we suspect might have been driving whilst unfit through drink or drugs or whom we think might be guilty of committing an offence under the Public Order Act.

Other laws may also grant us further powers of entry for example the Road Traffic Act which allows us to force entry after a serious traffic accident so that we can administer breath tests on a person who we think has fled the scene of the crash.

In my example, when we found the male he had not suffered any harm. We were able to arrange for him to be seen by medical staff and put in place the help he’d need for the future. Yes, his door will need repairing but this is a small price to pay for having ensured his safety and achieved the right result at the end of the day. This is what our powers of entry are there to ensure – that we are not hindered and can go about our duties to the greatest possible effect.

If you must go to work tomorrow, well if I were you I wouldn’t bother…

The view from the control room of Walsall Police Station earlier today.

On parade this morning one of my colleagues quite confidently predicted “It’s going to start snowing at three o’clock this afternoon”. I’d heard that it might snow but didn’t think much of it, but then at three, nearly bang on the dot, the skies took their cue from the cold weather and dumped snow everywhere.

Within about five minutes we’d received our first ‘car verses car RTC’ call, followed shortly after by the first of what likely will be many complaints about inconsiderate snowball throwing.

When it comes to driving though, how is it best to cope with snow and the ice?

The first tip – and the best I can give – is that the chances of you colliding or getting into trouble are near enough zero if you’re sitting in your house in front of a log fire, swigging brandy and singing White Christmas to Marjorie Reynolds. Unless you absolutely have to, don’t drive at all.

Should it be the case that you have no choice but to drive, check your car is in a decent condition to cope with the snow. Do you have enough fuel in the tank, enough charge in the battery and enough tread on the tires to complete your journey safely? Furthermore do you have warm clothing should your car get stuck and its magical ability to double up as a incredibly expensive coat suddenly vanish?

When out on the road, you obviously need to be thinking about doubling or even tripling your stopping distances and aiming to drive at a sensible speed so that if needs be, you can bring your car to a halt before a wall does the job for you. Higher gears tend to work better in manual cars for avoiding wheel spin so look to start off in second rather than first.

In snowy conditions using fog lights shouldn’t be an issue so stick them on and make sure other motorists can see you. Try to stick to the roads that will have been gritted (the arterial ones) and if you see another driver stuck, consider stopping to lend them a hand where safe to do so.

Following these tips should help you avoid too many problems over the next few days but as I’ve stressed, the first recommendation that you don’t drive at all is the most important – if you don’t need to make a journey then please, please, please stay at home in the warm.

As a final note, what do we do when the snow if a-falling?

Obviously there are contingency plans for severe weather which have already began to swing into action – our fleet of 4×4 vehicles will be on standby, officers issued with cold weather gear and non-essential personnel cancelled.

As the weather affects our cars as much as it does anyone else, we have to start prioritising calls and for safety’s sake will respond to only the most immediate ones. In this we encourage that only urgent calls are made to us by the public to help us stay on top of the workload and ensure we reserve the capability to deal with calls as they’re received.

Beyond this we’ll likely catch up on what we can at the station and casually ask each officer who walks into the station looking like Jack Frost, “Still snowing outside is it?”. Ho Ho!

I will follow you into the dark…

A sophisticated system of satellites means even distant corners of the planet, like Aldridge, are covered by GPS.

The other week a very interesting job came in over the radio. There’d been a report of a potential robbery that had just happened in the town centre during which someone had their phone stolen. As we do for any robbery all response units converged on the area and began searching for the offenders.

What was remarkable was that as we approached the town centre with our sirens blaring and blue lights flashing, the control room began to broadcast updates on the location of the phone. At first I thought they might be watching the offenders on CCTV but then it became apparent what was actually happening – the victim had installed on his phone a tracking application and so was able to relay the phone’s position to the 999 operator*.

This meant that rather than having a large search area that expanded exponentially with each minute that went past, we could focus on where the phone was likely to be and so greatly increase the chances of both recovering it and arresting the offenders.

Whilst in this case the phone lost signal just before officers converged on its location, the usefulness of the tracker showed what a benefit such applications can be to helping defeat the bad guys.

This applies not only in catching them immediately after an incident, but also to recovering property at a later point. Pinpointing your device’s location, for example, may be enough for us to be able to apply for a search warrant and go bashing in doors with our big red key.

If you own a phone made by a popular type of fruit I’d recommend installing the Find My iPhone app which allows you to both locate, message and even remotely wipe a stolen device. Even without the app installed, you can still log into iCloud to display your phone’s location remotely.

Other similar services are available for BlackBerry, Android and Windows phones allowing users to instantly locate their phones and often are free to use.

Alongside installing and learning how to use the location services on offer, as I’ve written about before the first thing you should do when you come into possession of any new toy – be it a twig, a fancy phone or a nice watch – is to register it for free on Immobilise. Record serial numbers, take photos and then upload it to the site so that we can identify and return property when it’s recovered.

New technology provides us with new ways to help fight crime and can often help in unexpected ways. Not too long ago a man in Sussex was able to provide officers with a picture of a potential suspect after photos taken on his stolen iPad were automatically sent to him following the theft.

At the same time, prevention is better than cure and so whilst we’re assisted by GPS satellites whizzing overhead and other similarly high-tech stuff, it’s always best keep your possessions out of sight and not let yourself be a victim in the first place.

* Actually in this example the chain of communication was even more complicated – as the victim obviously didn’t have a phone himself, he had to contact his family via a telephone box who accessed the location of his stolen mobile remotely from their computer. As they lived in another county they spoke to their local police who in turn sent the information to our control room who in turn sent it to us. It was West Midlands Police meets 24!

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