Archive for April, 2012

Sealed with a kiss…

A small corner of the vast detained property store at Walsall Police Station. Not pictured is the sword bin, or the drugs locker, or the haunted mummy...

At any police station, the seized property store may well be the room that members of the public would most like to have a wonder around. In their minds it’s full of strange weapons, ancient artifacts and priceless jewels.

Does the reality live up to what people might imagine a police property room to look like though?

In my experience the answer is yes. Take a stroll past the secure doors of the property store and you instantly find yourself in a magical world filled with exotic throwing stars, illegal substances and odd bits of copper.

Yep, when it comes to defining eclectic, the property store is a good place to start. Home to things that have both been lost and also evidence seized during the course of investigations, you are likely to find everything from remote control cars to all the bits you’d likely need to build the real thing. There are thousands of discs containing CCTV, a variety of bikes and even a bin dedicated entirely to the storage of swords.

Property finds its way into the store from a variety of different locations. In the case of found items handed to police officers, they are usually taken to a local police station where they are logged with the property computer. Staff from the property store then do their daily rounds collecting the various bits and pieces and finding them a space on the shelves.

Seized property likewise will be bagged by the officers, an exhibit label applied and then will be locked away until it is needed at court. The exhibit label is important in that it allows us to account for where the property has been. The bags are sealed for the same reason, so that we can testify that no one has been able to alter the item after seizure.

Whilst there are indeed some weird and wonderful things in the stores, there’s also a great deal of uninteresting, monetarily worthless things that have to be seized but which probably wouldn’t be of interest to a visitor to the store.

Looking at the shelves you’ll see all sorts of broken door frames, bits of metal and other anonymous items which have been collected because they may contain fingerprints or DNA useful in a case.

Items are usually kept until either collected or used as evidence in court. For evidence we’re likely to hold onto the exhibits until around six months after the conclusion of the court case should there be any appeals.

Efforts will be made to return identifiable lost property to its owner however if we’re unable to do so after a while we’ll either dispose of it or alternatively, sell it at auction.

Sales for property sold in the West Midlands are held through the Aston’s auctioneers. They publish full details of upcoming auctions on their website and moneys raised find their way back to the community.

Whilst the money raised in these auctions is indeed welcome, I think we’d prefer to be able to return the goods to their original owners as in my experience, when someone has had something stolen the item’s return is their primary concern.

Marking up your property and noting serial numbers provides your best chance for getting stolen goods back – I’ve written about this before and would say doing so is one of your strongest weapons against the burglars.

If we have serial numbers to hand, we can enter them onto our crime recording system and then compare them against the property system to see if we get a match. As I’ve advised before, get yourself over to the free property registering website Immobilise and build yourself an inventory which will be invaluable if you’re unfortunate enough to suffer a loss.

When it comes to larger items, like cars and vans, we have a number of other facilities dotted around the West Midlands where we can securely store things for them to be examined. Vehicles in particular are often seized for forensic examination and we have access to purpose built garages where they can be kept until FSI can come out and dust for prints etc.

I have to walk past the property store every shift on the way to the locker room and always slow down a little to peer inside and see what new additions they have added to their archive. It’s always something different, be it a new bike or a part from another disassembled cannabis factory, and as such it’s fair to say the property store is probably the most interesting part of the station.

I kept on running into the south lands, that’s where they found me, my head in my hands…

Where are you, John? We'd like a little chat...

Having just had a quick peek at the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted‘ list, I notice that they’ve got the catchy headline ‘be part of the solution’.

As we’ve just published our own version of the Most Wanted list, I’m writing to encourage you to be part of the solution yourself and help us catch some of the West Midlands’ most sought after criminals.

Drawing on the success of Operation View during which we encouraged – and are still encouraging – you to take a look at CCTV captured during the August Riots, we now have a dedicated section of our website on which we’re publishing some rather unpleasant mugshots of persons who we’re hoping you’ll help us locate.

Doing so is easy enough – you just need to take a note of the offender’s reference number and then either give us a call on 101 or alternatively, approach Crimestoppers anonymously with your tip off.

The people we’ve added to the gallery are wanted for some of the worst offences it’s possible to commit – there are suspected murderers, robbers, burglars and more. They’ve all either been convicted or are named as responsible for a range of serious offences and what’s more, whilst their not residing in one of our cells are more likely than not out causing harm in your area.

Because this is the case we need your help to locate and arrest these villains as soon as possible. You might recognise them from the pub, or through a friend of a friend or maybe you’ve seen them hanging around on your estate – whatever your connection and however strong, it’s important that you get in touch to help us prevent further offences.

As you’ll notice from the gallery, there are already suspects who have big red ‘arrested’ stamps across their silhouettes – this will be because members of the public have got in touch and we’d love to see a few more stamps appearing on the other people in the gallery – it’ll be owing to your help that this will happen.

No distance left to run…

Yesterday's Virgin London Marathon seemed to set the tone nicely for the Olympics which officers from the West Midlands will be involved in policing.

Yesterday I spent much of the morning popping up from various underground stations to watch the Virgin London Marathon in all its 26.2 mile glory. I was keen to see both the race itself and also to get a glimpse at the policing operation supporting the event as I’ll soon be coming back to London myself to help out with an even bigger sporting event – the Olympic Games.

As ever the preparations that would have gone into the race paid off handsomely with the return being a smoothly run event that was as enjoyable for the fans as it was for the participants themselves. London lends itself well to hosting a race on the scale of the marathon and the international flavour of the audience which I spent most of the day weaving through I think showing the worldwide appeal of the capital city.

The course record was just missed with Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang winning the male race in 2:04:44 and Mary Keitany, also of Kenya, being the first woman across the finish line with a time of 2:18:37.

As an occasional amateur runner myself I know these times are ridiculously quick – I was happy with completing the Black Country Half Marathon in just over an hour and a half last year so can’t really put into words how impressed I am when the pros go to work.

On the policing side, officers from both The Met, the British Transport Police and the City of London forces looked like they were having as much fun as some of the spectators. There were officers perched on horses, lots of bobbies wondering around on foot and support vehicles parked on nearly every street corner.

Hosting the marathon every year they’re obviously used to the size of the event and I reckon this bodes well for hosting the Olympics which I guess they’ll just see as a big fancy sports day.

Okay, maybe Lord Coe would challenge me on that description – the Olympics are going to involve tens of thousands of people flooding into the capital to watch athletes competing in a range of disciplines at venues spread across the city and beyond. The spectators – and not to mention the athletes themselves – are going to require feeding, housing, transport and security on a massive scale. In less than one hundred days London is going to be capital of the world.

Whilst London is the host, the games are obvious larger than the city itself and so require help from all over to ensure they run to plan. Thousands of volunteers have come forward and when it comes to supporting the capital’s emergency services, there’ll be staff from all over the country drafted in to reinforce the local resources.

As the second largest force, West Midlands Police will be sending a number of officers – myself included – down to London to provide what we call ‘mutual aid’. Planning for this operation will have been going on behind the scenes ever since we first won the bid for the games and will no doubt be on a scale as grand as the games themselves.

Whilst at the moment I don’t know exactly where I’ll be working or what I’ll be doing, I’m likely to be working the the British Transport Police to ensure the underground and overground train networks can manage the increased load. Having spent three years living in London myself and never really getting my head around the tube map, this could be interesting but I’m sure we’ll do our best!

Other officers will be providing support in different roles including specialist search teams, public order and crowd control.

Whilst the focus of the Olympics will obviously be on London, this isn’t to say that we’re not affected by the games up here in what Londoners term ‘the north’ with there being events to get involved with even if you didn’t manage to get tickets for the mens’ 100 meter final or the inexplicably popular womens’ volleyball.

You can keep an eye out on the local events over on the London 2012 website with the main thing to look out for being the Olympic Torch visiting Walsall on Saturday June 30th.

It’ll be making its way down the A34 onto Green Lane, past the police station and then doing a lap of the town centre before dashing down the Wolverhampton Road and across Junction 10 of the M6 towards Willenhall and then on into Wolverhampton.

The route is planned so that the torch will pass within ten miles of 95% of the population, check out the map to find out when and where it’ll be coming to your area.

The other main consideration for the West Midlands is that of security – there’s always the chance someone might use the games as an opportunity to cause trouble and as such we need your help in ensuring this doesn’t happen. We ask that you remain vigilant in the run up to the games and that you report any suspicious activity connected with the Olympics to us immediately. Either call us on 101 or approach Crimestoppers anonymously.

As you may be able to tell, the Olympics are something that I’m really looking forward to and so am happy that I’ve had the chance to go down and get involved in an event which I’ll remember for the rest of my police career.

It’s going to require a lot of work from a lot of people to make the games a success – judging from what I saw in London yesterday I think we’re on the right track.

Further on up the road…

Road closures can be inconvenient but necessary too - why is it that we close off roads and what might we be doing whilst they are shut?

The truck driver looked down at me from his cab and said angrily “I cannot tolerate any diversions, I must be allowed through“. Five hundred meters down the road was one of the worst car crashes I’ve seen, the air ambulance had just landed to take away a severely injured casualty and here was this bloke furious at the fact that he’d have to take an alternate route.

Unfortunately this is the reaction we sometimes get from motorists who perhaps don’t fully understand why it becomes necessary to shut roads. I can appreciate it can be inconvenient and will indeed cause delays but then there are good reasons for us needing to restrict the traffic flow and we only do so when we have no other real choice.

When it comes to us taking the decision to shut a road, there are usually two main reasons that we’ll have needed to do so – either the road is blocked meaning it couldn’t be used anyway, or there are casualties at the scene who can’t be treated safely whilst the road is in use. Often both of these factors apply.

When it is the case that the road is blocked, we usually need to wait for the recovery vehicles to come out and drag the damaged vehicles out of the way. We’re also likely to need the Highways Agency to attend and collect debris, repair any street furniture and to make sure that various engine fluids are mopped from the road surface.

With casualties, the ambulance and fire crews struggle to work safely if there is a live stream of traffic nearby. They may need to cut vehicles apart or the helicopter might require a space to land, both which will require plenty of room to do safely.

In the case of fatal accidents, there’s also the consideration that we might need to remove the deceased in which case there’s usually two options. We’ll either transfer them at the scene to another vehicle for transport to the hospital or alternatively, place the vehicle containing the body onto a recovery truck and then do the necessary at the garage. Either way dignity requires that the road is shut whilst we do so.

I can understand that people do get frustrated when we have shut roads and often this is because the solutions we put in place won’t be ideal. We have a very short amount of time to decide which roads to shut off and where they need to be closed and furthermore, roads aren’t designed to be closed. When you’ve got multiple side streets, residents wanting to get back to their houses and rush hour traffic too, things can get pretty difficult.

We’ll try our best to reevaluate how roads have been closed off when we’re able and if the roads are going to be closed for a length of time, will ask the council to put in place more permanent barriers and diversion signs. Either way it’s obviously not ideal and when you have motorists who don’t know the area, traffic congestion is unfortunately going to be inevitable.

As for how long we keep the road closed for, much depends on how serious the accident has been. When it comes to damage caused to the road and street furniture then the councils are usually incredibly quick at making repairs. New railings appear, bus stops are put back together and lamp posts seem to magically grow out of the ground – give it an hour and you’d not know there’d been an accident at all.

Crashes involving life changing or fatal accidents are likely to cause longer closures. The traffic units need time to investigate the cause of the accident and it’s possible the accident reconstruction team will want to take photographs and measurements to gather all the evidence they can. A serious crash site will be treated as a crime scene with access being restricted until the officers are satisfied nothing has been missed.

As soon as we’re able to we’ll reopen the roads and get the traffic flowing normally again. I know it’s frustrating to see an officer standing in the middle of the road you were hoping to drive down waving his hands around and diverting you elsewhere but unfortunately we usually have no choice.

We need to do the best we can to ensure that those injured in traffic accidents get the treatment they need and the best way to look at it is this – were it yourself in the upturned car or someone you know, you’d want us to do the same.

One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)…

What caused the loud boom heard in Coventry yesterday? UFO? Sound barrier being broken? More importantly, how are the emergency services meant to know?

Yesterday two interesting things happened. First of all there was a loud ‘explosion’ heard across Coventry. Shortly afterwards we began to receive calls asking what it was. This made me think, when something odd happens why do people think first of all to call the police and secondly, how do they think we’ll know what’s going on?

To start off with I do not mean to criticise anyone who did phone us – a loud explosion is exactly the sort of thing we need to know about and the quicker we are aware, the quicker we can respond.

What I’m curious about is what makes people think that the authorities do know what’s going on at all times? I’m curious because being part of those authorities, I know that it’s not always the case that we do.

Take yesterday’s incident as an example – we would have received calls from across a wide region informing us that a large bang had just been heard. We know now that it was actually a sonic boom but at the time we’d have no way of knowing this. The information we would have to work on is that somewhere something has produced a loud enough thunder crack to concern a great number of people.

What could it be though? Put simply, beyond waiting for a call from a panicked site manager or someone similar to say that his fuel storage depot has gone up in flames, understandably we’d be struggling to join the dots.

I think before joining the police I had the same impression of the emergency services and the authorities – whatever the situation there’d be an expert and a plan. Raining fish? We’d know what the cause was and where they’d come from. UFO landing on the roof of the New Art Gallery? NORAD would be on the line for an update.

Truth be told, it’s not really like this. We have to work with limited, sometimes patchy information and are often required to improvise solutions on the spot. As so much of our work can’t be predicted, we can only prepare in a general sense.

I know, for example, that we have plans in place should we need to evacuate town centres and have arrangements with the council to commandeer facilities should we need them as aid stations but such arrangements only represent the first steps of dealing with a major incident.

Likewise with our human resources, we have on call around the clock hostage negotiators, NBC trained officers and others trained with all sorts of weird and wonderful skills. As to who gets called and where they get sent when a tornado whips through Tipton, it’s very much up to the senior officers in the control rooms to get a grip of the situation and call the shots.

Coming back to Coventry, even were some quick thinking control room staff member to have made an enquiry with the the MOD, I imagine there’d likely be a delay in the information filtering through. Unlike the shock wave, information that fighters have been scrambled will not spread quickly within the MOD itself with there almost certainly being a long delay before it reaches their press office and then out into the public domain.

I guess part of the perception that we are in a position to deal with any emergency comes from the fact that as an emergency service, we have lots of experience in dealing with said emergencies and so we become practiced at doing so. Some people may not know what to do after a car crash or what to turn when their house is flooding – we do because we deal with similar calls all the time.

Another explanation is that it’s reassuring to think that there’s always someone who knows what’s going on. I’m as much of this mindset as anyone else, even though I do represent ‘the man’ and should know better. I’m happy to assume that brainy government scientists have a plan and a cure for the latest outbreak of the Ebola Virus and that when the machines become self-aware, there are stop checks in place to ensure that I don’t have to spend the rest of my life dodging Terminators amongst the ruins of Walsall.

The problem of not always having the answers to hand aside, what’s important is that we are able to take steps to collate information and reassure the public who have been calling asking the same questions that we’re likely to be asking ourselves. We don’t have all the answers, but then who does?

P.S. I had an interesting chat with some of my followers on Twitter last night about what had caused the boom. They were less convinced by the MOD’s claim that it was a RAF Typhoon doing their own version of a police ‘immediate’ response. Popular theories involved UFOs and Elvis. My own thoughts are that if it was a MOD cover up, it was probably a top secret test for the Aurora Spy Plane – the truth is out there, people!

Climbing up the walls…

An urban explorer perched at the top of the Shard building last year - was he breaking the law though? (Image from Silent UK)

An interesting story popped up in the news yesterday revealing that at some point last year a group of ‘urban explorers’ had visited the newly constructed Shard skyscraper in London.

This is all well and good you might think. Thing is, they’d visited it at night and without permission, they’d evaded security patrols and clambered all the way to the peak where they then scaled the crane at the building’s crown and took a few photos as proof of their reaching of the summit.

First of all as this is a police blog I’ve got to say that I wouldn’t recommend anyone try anything similar. As I’ll discuss below, such trespassing is against the law and not only this, can be pretty dangerous too. A fall from a construction site is unlikely to have worked out particularly well for the visitors and in the Shard’s case, the building has previously been occupied by foxes meaning they risked a mauling too.

The risks of being gobbled up by (presumably) hungry foxes aside, what does the law have to say about trespassing and is it something that you could get arrested for?

When it comes to entering another person’s land as a trespasser, the law you may be breaking is predominately a civil law. Us police officers deal with criminal law – the sort that can end you up in jail – and as such, we rarely are involved with civil matters other that to provide advice.

As walking onto another person’s property without permission, to give an example, is a civil concern, it is up to the owner of the land to take up a complaint in the civil courts if he or she seeks legal remedy. I’m not able to take my handcuffs out to deal with a trespasser as I don’t have the power to do so.

This said, it certainly isn’t the case that trespassing is exclusively a civil matter and there are several pieces of legislation that make trespassing a criminal offence under certain conditions.

The most obvious one is burglary which by definition is entering a building as a trespasser with the intention of stealing. This means that if you don a stripey top and clamber into someone’s property with the intention of filling your swag bag, you can expect a trip to the cells.

Other bits of legislation that make provisions for trespass to be a criminal offence include the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Firearms Act 1968 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Under Section 63 of the Sexual Offences Act it is an offence to trespass on premises with the intention of committing a sexual offence whilst on the premises. Section 20 of the Firearms Act makes it a criminal offence to trespass on land whilst in possession of a firearm and Section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act gives the police the power to deal with trespassers on land who have entered with the common purpose of residing there.

Perhaps the best source of criminal law in relation to trespassing though comes from Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824 relating to ‘persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds’. We now refer to the offence created under this section as being ‘found on enclosed premises’ and means that it is against the law to be found on an enclosed premises (which would include climbing on a building) for an unlawful purpose.

Sticking with the Vagrancy Act for a moment, it also includes provisions to define ‘who shall be deemed incorrigible rogues’ and makes provisions granting to courts ‘power of sessions to detain and keep to hard labour, and punish by whipping rogues and vagabonds and incorrigible rogues’. I imagine these parts have since been repealed but probably best not risk it…

Urban exploration is an area of interest to myself and there are some excellent websites knocking around the internet showing the exploits of those who are keen to document abandoned buildings around the world.

If you’re interested, I’d recommend taking a peek at Subterranea Britannica and also at Abandoned Britain – both which have some great photos from sites that will likely be lost to history over the next few years.

When it comes to urban exploring, ‘building hacking’ or however you dress it, the most important consideration is that it is done lawfully and safely. I can appreciate that this strips the fun out of dodging the sweep of the security guard’s flashlight however it is a fair point – the law is clear on trespass and from the sounds of it, the Vagrancy Act is not one you’d want to cross!

We’re the stars of CCTV…

As you can see from the above video, criminals are an an ugly lot. They’re so unpleasant to look at that they don’t want to offend anyone else with their horrible looks and so often wear their hoodies done up as tightly as possible, dodge mirrors and in all cases avoid CCTV cameras like the plague.

CCTV is one of the best lines of investigation we as police have and one of the first questions an officer is likely to ask when attending an incident is ‘are there any cameras covering the area?’. Good quality footage is very hard to argue against and when shown images of their own faces during interview, even the slowest burglar is likely to recognise that denial of the offence is futile.

Because CCTV is so useful to us in solving crimes, should you consider a system for your home and if the answer is yes (see the below paragraph) then what’s the best advice for installing cameras and are there any legal considerations to take into account?

As you may have guessed, my advice would be that investing in a good CCTV system is one of the best steps you can take to protect your home from opportunistic miscreants. There are two main advantages – one, that footage of an offender is invaluable in the course of an investigation and two, that merely having visible cameras provides a powerful deterrent.

When I say ‘invest’, CCTV needn’t be expensive with a search on the site of a popular online retailer named after a large South American rainforest revealing that systems are available for as little as £60. Dummy cameras are even less.

The range of systems in mind, it’s always best to go for the highest specification kit in your price bracket as when it comes to CCTV footage the most important consideration is image quality. We often view recordings on lower end systems in which the offenders appear like spooky, misty ghosts who pop up in one frame and then are gone not even allowing us to take a clothing description. This is obviously little help to us.

Many systems offer capabilities such as night vision and motion sensors, record onto a hard drive and can be played back through a television. If you’re keen on your gadgets, some even can be connected to the internet meaning that you can access your CCTV from anywhere in the world and view footage live on a computer or smart phone.

As for where you position the cameras, this is a choice limited by how many cameras you have at your disposal however if you only have one or two I’d be tempted to prioritise the rear of your property as many break ins occur with offenders gaining entry through rear or side facing windows and doors.

How well overlooked your house is will make a difference to where you might want to position your cameras with the idea being that criminals are going to be attracted to the entry points not overlooked and so this is where your cameras are best placed. If you have a front drive and particularly if you have some nice motors sitting on said drive, a camera covering your cars is always a good bet too.

With the system installed and the cameras recording the next thing you’ll need to do is to make sure that you know how to access the footage itself. You may be surprised at how often, both in private houses and shops, people will have excellent CCTV but no idea how to view it and even less knowledge of how to burn a copy to a disc.

As it seems to be an unwritten law that every CCTV system must run on different software and has to record in a different format, it’s really helpful to us that the person with the cameras knows how it works and has some discs available to make us a copy of the footage.

The other important thing is that the time is right on your time stamp. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve struggled to work out what time frame we need to be reviewing when the system is set incorrectly. It’s usually the case of “Well, your camera is one hour and forty two minutes fast, that clock over there is six hours and eight minutes slow and with the clocks going back an hour at 02:00 last night I think we need to set the date for around about 17:59 on 03/06/1996 and watch from there” – confusing!

What about the law though? Are CCTV cameras installed at home covered by any legislation and could you get into trouble by installing cameras?

First of all, whilst businesses have to comply with the principles of the Data Protection Act the same does not apply to people using CCTV for purely ‘domestic purposes’ at home. This means you don’t have to put up signs warning others that you’re using cameras and don’t – unless you really want to – have to assign someone to be the ‘data controller’ or ‘data king’. It also means there’s not an issue if your camera covers part of a public street.

What you do need to do though is to bare in mind that your neighbours have a right to privacy and so you can’t infringe on that right by, for example, directing a camera right at their house. This could be seen as an violation of their right to privacy under the Human Rights Act and potentially could also form the basis of a harassment complaint.

The other legal consideration – civil this time – is whether you need planning permission for your cameras. This mainly applies to any of you reading this blog from inside a castle or stately home. Planning permission is only something you’re likely to need if you live in a listed building or a conservation area so if you do, check with your council before sorting out camera coverage for your moat.

CCTV regularly forms an important part of the case against all sorts of criminal activities and so can be an invaluable weapon in both the prevention, and detection, of crime.

Setting yourself up with a decent system is a sure step to ensuring that the criminals’ ugly faces end up where they belong – on film and then behind bars.

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