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Heard On The Grapevine

by msecadm4921

Operation Grapevine is something UK-wide that grew out of a simple idea. Mark Rowe has spoken to the two men who have made it happen.

We operate the largest retail network in the UK, said John Scott. The head of security at the Post Office did not point it out, but as I walked with him from one office on Old Street in north London to another, after our meeting, I did spot a post office across the road in the rain. It was a reminder that for all the publicity about (another) round of post office closures, the total of post offices is falling from 14,000 to 11,500 plus a further 500 ‘Outreach’ branches, such as mobile outlets and in shared premises such as church halls. Thinking about it later, many British institutions – pubs, police stations – are shutting some of their physical buildings, as they adapt to a 24-hour, internet age. Anyway I had not arranged to see John Scott to talk about that, but about Operation Grapevine. Linking those thousands of post offices – crime reports and suspicions from post office staff going to a control room, which digests the data and sends emails and mobile phone text blasts of security intelligence – sounds an obvious thing to do, once you do it, like many ideas. It didn’t just happen though, nor overnight. John Scott told the story while outside the window behind him were wet London rooftops on a drizzly cool summer day.


Operation Hawkeye, to combat cash in transit (CIT) robberies, was running in Manchester and Liverpool, one of the hot-spots for such crime. "The cash in transit crews used to phone in with suspicious items or incidents to the control room, manned by PWL [Professional Witnesses, the security company founded by former Greater Manchester Police man Trevor Barton; see his side of the story below]. We suddenly started seeing a crime profile out there." That information, once gathered, and analysed, and passed to police, allowed police and others to mitigate against CIT crime, and feed the reports back to CIT crews, to look out for a particular suspect car, or person; or to divert the CIT vehicles from a known risky area. That continued for a couple of years. The challenge for the post office; given those thousands of retail branches, vulnerable to robbery, distraction theft, sleight of hand offences, and burglary … could the same approach work? A pilot scheme followed, again in Liverpool and Manchester, using PWL as an extension of Hawkeye. Beforehand, the post office noted how many reports of suspicious incidents came from sub-postmasters and agents: around 250 a year, to the national business service centre. While John did not spell it out, it did mean that hardly any post offices ever rang the call centre with security and crime intelligence.

Stop and search

John said: "There were some teething problems, as you would expect with any deployment." Something soon identified: "We needed to respond very quickly to some of the intelligence coming through. For example, a sub-postmaster knew his cash was being delivered later that day; saw people standing suspiciously; or in a car. They [the sub-postmaster] would ring into Grapevine, and Grapevine had to identify which cash in transit vehicle was arriving, make contact, and stop or divert that delivery." The control room would call the police, who would do a ‘stop and search’, "and quite often would find some evidence of a criminal nature", whether illegal drugs, stolen property, or weapons. Grapevine could then call on the CIT van to go ahead with the delivery. This north-west regional test proved such a success, Grapevine went national in January 2007. Some 5500 post offices have signed up, receiving emails or (mainly) texts. John Scott ran through some of the developments. "It’s engaged with our sub-postmasters; it’s starting to provide a more secure environment for them, and demonstrates that the post office is taking their safety, their customers’ and employee safety seriously." Lone worker safety, too. Any post office ringing the Grapevine line goes through to a PWL operator, rather than a general call centre with its inevitable tiers before you get through to the person to help you. Operators by practice (and all according to the National Intelligence Model, the way police go about their business) can pull out more data from the caller, asking the right questions that a non-security person like a post office counter worker might not think of. John Scott described it as a ‘complete circle’; the sub-postmaster who rings in with information sees it texted out to himself and neighbours (the country is divided into a grid of 350). John Scott admitted they had found ‘completely different crime profiles’: "For example, we weren’t aware of the high levels of ‘sleight of hands’ because sub-postmasters just didn’t report it." Nor did every distraction theft get reported, though to be fair many sub-postmasters are running a private business and the post office is only part of their turnover. Speed of response is of the essence against sleight of hand thieves because, having struck in one place, they may well go half a mile down the road to the next post office and do the same. If counter workers realise they have been cheated, nearby branches can get text-alerted within minutes.


Compared with the old 250 incoming calls a year, Grapevine gets 1100 phone calls a month from sub-postmasters. So far Grapevine has tackled physical crime, but now it can develop to covers fraud, against post office products. Grapevine has become a brand for security within the Post Office. That includes as intelligence call centre managing suspicious incidents, overt vehicles supporting cash deliveries or other vulnerable times, asset tracking (which replaced smoke dyes to stain stolen CIT cash and the branches), product security such as use of stolen credit/debit cards, cheques, and whistle-blowing by staff or from members of the public. All post offices in Manchester for instance have ‘adopted’ a police officer. Grapevine is the branding on mobile billboards offering a £25,000 reward for information against criminals who target post offices. Such adverts are aimed at those thinking of doing crime, as much as to reassure the law-abiding; the ads stand outside courthouses at 10am (when the accused have turned up and magistrates start seeing cases); and outside prisons at visiting times. John Scott describes Grapevine as a gateway for its staff and agents, the glue integrating it all. If police want to decide when and where to do high-visibility patrols, or when covert vehicles shadowing CIT deliveries should run, Grapevine can provide the data.

Shop window

Putting it yet another way, Grapevine is a shop window for the Post Office security department, which was reorganised in June 2007; John Scott has a team of 63. He’s a former police officer who joined the PO investigations department 15 years ago, and worked in a number of units in Royal Mail Group, including Royal Mail Letters London, and then head of security for Royal Mail International, before going across to Post Office Limited. At first he led the external crime team, and when all the security teams were brought together, became head of security in February 2007. I asked about changes in 15 years, that the Post Office has gone through like many other workplaces. Fifteen years ago, John answered, the Post Office investigations department was very much focused on where crime was reported; investigating; and prosecuting; but there was no overall strategy for crime prevention. Over the years the change has been to risk-based management, through analysis.


About the man: he’s a member of ASIS, and chairs the UK exam development group; he is a Certified Protection Professional (CPP) and has a University of Leicester MSc and other qualifications. So it’s not just talk when he says ‘I’m very much focused on continued professional development’ and talks of raising the bar of professionalism. He expects all his senior managers to have a masters in their relevant field; and they all do. "It’s certainly developed me, personally," he says of the MSc. Several staff are going through the Leicester MSc, ‘people developing themselves in readiness to enter senior management’. The company will sponsor staff through such academic study – and not just financially but with an external consultant who can offer tuition. John spoke of the Leicester distance learning course in security and risk management as supporting the security department’s risk-based strategy, and mitigating risks. Using your ticker? I asked. It struck me as interesting that John Scott wants managers with the MSc using what they have read, and researched. I raised the fact that some in security management and business generally don’t rate academic qualifications, regarding them as head in the cloud stuff. John Scott spoke of a security and risk masters degree as more than ‘just a tick in the box’, more than something to take the security manager to the next career stage: "For me the challenge is how they use that knowledge, and skill and experience." So the Post Office is particular about which course they pay their security people to go through; it’s felt that the Leicester modules suit the sort of crime profile the Post Office faces. He added that of people he interviews within the business and externally, a lot who do have a risk degree do not however show evidence of how they apply that learning to their working life. So now you know, readers!?

The first thing that Trevor Barton says – and it is typical of the man – is that Grapevine was John Scott’s idea. Briefly, Trevor’s control room in Manchester runs the Grapevine service, taking, analysing and passing on pieces of intelligence, reports of suspect things, from thousands of post offices.

Trevor recalls the days of Operation Hawkeye to combat thefts against cash in transit vehicles. CIT people would ring in with suspicions, about vehicles that they kept seeing, ‘people genuinely wanting to help’, even if it was a driver from one CIT delivery company, ringing about a suspect car they had seen elsewhere. John Scott’s idea: would the thousands of postmasters and postmistresses – the UK’s largest franchise set-up – share crime-related concerns, to help each other? Some 18 months after Operation Grapevine began running nationally, it is plain that post offices are using the service. Even after the recent publicity about post office closures, it’s worth stressing that there will still be 12,000 outlets, not only the stereotypical post office in a village, but branches in WH Smith, in supermarkets, and so on. Though there is talk of Grapevine becoming compulsory for a post office, for Trevor the strength of it is that it’s built from the bottom up, recommended by sub-postmasters by word of mouth.

Sleight of hand

Organisers have hundreds of success stories along the lines of Grapevine members receiving a text or email warning in the morning about two women (say) changing money and by sleight of hand (and to watch them do it on CCTV, these criminals are skilful), and sure enough half an hour later the suspects walked in; the post office staff recognised the thieves, picked up the phone, alerted police, who made an arrest. Grapevine sends daily reports, regionalised – because a branch in Barnstaple, say, does not want to hear about what’s going on in say Durham. Those signed up to Grapevine learn about crime trends in their area. Such as distraction thefts: groups will knock over shop displays and make a noise, the member of staff will come out from behind the counter to intervene, and other members of the group will sneak upstairs in the commotion and steal what they can lay hands on.


"Nothing is wasted," Trevor says of the intelligence passed on by post offices. "Everything they tell us is recorded. Obviously we get huge differences in the grade of intelligence that comes in." The control room filters the data, passing to police – according to the National Intelligence Model – the most certain information, rather than bombarding police with vague lower-grade stuff. And over the months, Trevor’s staff have become more adept, making connections, even ones that police might not otherwise have known about. As Trevor says, gangs are going around the country, making post offices and other small retailers their targets, to steal money from sleight of hand at counters, by confusing shop assistants. Trevor says: "We have shown it’s a level two crime, an organised crime." In other words, gangs cross police force borders, which implies that such crime is more serious than for single forces to try to tackle. I interrupt Trevor to raise the point that a loss of £200 or £400 from one of these ‘sleight of hand’ crimes is more serious than the amount may suggest, because (as with any retailer suffering from a shop theft) the retailer has to make far more than £200 or £400 of sales to make up for the £200 or so loss. Trevor agrees; it might be the equivalent of a week’s takings; and he adds that such a crime might – giving an example – take days to come to light. Meanwhile the staff are wondering if a colleague has stolen the money, and that can be distressing, to think (in the days until it’s disproved) that a workmate might be betraying trust.


Trevor recalls: "When I was a DCI [detective chief inspector] in Wigan, like lots of other places in the mid, late 80s, we had a ring-round scheme. Somebody sees a suspected shop theft, they would ring two numbers, and they would ring two numbers." So that quite soon many retailers in a town are warned. Until, as Trevor adds, someone doesn’t take the call because they are out; or the phone is busy. But with Operation Grapevine, texts and emails are there to pick up whenever you’re free. And if the postmaster is between premises, well, it’s cheap to have a phone just for Grapevine, and if it receives a message, you know it’s from Grapevine. Trevor isn’t knocking ring-rounds, but rather points to Grapevine as a database getting richer, so that more nuggets crop up. "I think it’s like panning for gold; scooping from the river bed and finding an important speck." Much of the work of Grapevine is about reassuring postmasters and staff, who out of town may seldom see – may seldom have cause to contact – law enforcers. Trevor says that the Post Office want other retailers, or banks or others, to join the operation – not so that the Post Office can reduce the money they put in, but because the more people join, the more panning for gold (to use Trevor’s metaphor again) and the greater the results. Can the operation work elsewhere, with petrol stations for instance? I ask. Trevor replies: "Any arena where money or valuables change hands; betting shops, bank counters. There will always be people trying scams and all the rest of it; and all we are saying, with a mobile phone or email we can give you early warning."

‘Further to travel’

"In my opinion it’s a real step forward," Trevor says. The son of a Blackburn borough policeman, and father of police officers, he recalls the oath he swore as a constable, about prevention and detection of crime, and the preservation of the Queen’s peace (not the King’s – Trevor is not that old!). "I think Grapevine is loyal to that ethos because we are trying to prevent; and obviously part of the detection process as well. Grapevine is a natural bedfellow to the extended police family." And where could it end? "I think it has got a lot further to travel," Trevor sums up, given we are in a 24-hour society, and the technology is there to take news of a crime and warn neighbours, at the speed of a text and email. It’s one way to tackle arguably the number one UK front line security problem; how to protect staff and assets where cash is still crossing counters.

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