Vertical Markets

A policing ‘postcode lottery’

by Mark Rowe

England and Wales has a ‘postcode lottery’ of how police respond – or don’t – to reports of burglary, robbery and theft, according to official inspectors, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). Too often there is a failure to get the basics of investigation and prevention right, they conclude.

Most SAC offences don’t lead to an offender being charged, a HMICFRS report says. Although there has been an overall fall in crime since the 1990s, SAC offences increased by 24 percent between March 2017 and September 2019; a fall in 2021 was put down to the pandemic lockdown. On average, only 6.6 percent of robbery offences reached the point of charge or summons, and 4.2 percent of theft offences.

In a word, the police have a ‘national detective shortage’. In brief, the inspectors found that investigations of ‘serious acquisitive crime’ are not being appropriately or thoroughly supervised; and police are not doing all they can to help victims when they report crimes, such as mostly not giving any advice on crime-scene preservation (including images from digital doorbells) during the initial call. The inspectors points out that ‘without effective evidence preservation, forces set themselves up to fail’.

SAC is defined as including theft of and from a motor vehicle including from car parks, but not commercial burglary.

As for call handling by police, inspectors reported that due to staff shortages during covid, ‘call takers concluded 101 non-emergency calls more quickly than they might otherwise have done …. we found this situation continued in many forces’ control rooms and was exacerbated by continuing recruitment difficulties’.

Similarly staffing appeared the question in terms of forensic staff; some forces don’t have enough ‘to routinely consider deploying them to burglary as a priority. They prioritise their limited forensic capacity in favour of high-harm crimes, such as serious assault and rape’. And, due to delays in CSI (crime scene investigators) attending, neighbourhood police may get called off their beat to protect crime scenes.

As for the much-touted 20,000 police officers by 2023, the inspectors report that ‘forces have prioritised uplift resources across many front line roles, we found that too many forces lack the capacity and capability to effectively investigate SAC’.

The report said that some forces are using out-of-court disposals, such as cautions, ‘as an alternative to prosecution’, ‘to tackle the root causes of SAC’, such as drug abuse. Here the report quoted approvingly South Yorkshire Police; and Operation Checkpoint, a Durham Constabulary ‘deferred prosecution scheme designed to prevent reoffending. It works with perpetrators to address the underlying causes of their offending, and theft, burglary and drugs offences can be considered. If selected for the scheme, the offender agrees to a four-month contract.”

The report however also described organised crime as a driver of SAC. Hence the inspectors quoted a West Yorkshire Police pilot scheme in Bradford Moor of ‘disrupting known criminals’ and to divert others from crime, including by working in schools, in ‘a single, whole-system approach to delivering community-empowered interventions that tackle drivers of crime’.

South Yorkshire calculated the cost of a burglary to the force as £530, and the cost of police intervention in a hotspot is £556. ‘So, if the force’s activity prevents one burglary, proactive hotspot intervention pays for itself’.

As for what’s possible, that includes use by several forces of forensic marking liquid products on easily-stolen property; and live GPS tracking of the SIM cards in stolen cars.

What HMIC says

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary Andy Cooke said: “Burglary, robbery and theft are not minor crimes. They are crimes that strike at the heart of how safe people feel in their own homes or communities. The current low charge rates for these crimes are unacceptable and unsustainable – there needs to be a concerted drive to address this issue because it directly affects the public’s confidence in the police’s ability to keep them safe.

“At the moment, depending on where in England and Wales they live, some victims are more likely than others to get a thorough investigation from their force. This postcode lottery can’t be justified. We found that from the moment a victim reports a crime until that case is finalised, forces are missing opportunities to gather vital evidence and bring offenders to justice.

“A lack of experienced officers means that too often, these crimes are being investigated poorly and are not adequately supervised – often because supervisors themselves are inexperienced and overstretched.

“We found that some police forces are working hard to tackle these crimes and uncovered some excellent examples of innovative and effective practice. We hope that other forces will follow these examples.

“We’ve made two recommendations for police forces to go back to basics by improving crime scene management and ensuring proper supervision so that investigations are conducted effectively.”


For the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), PCCs Steve Turner (Cleveland) and Jeff Cuthbert (Gwent) said: “Acquisitive crime makes up a significant per cent of crime and the profound effect it has on victims should not be underestimated. This is a comprehensive report which highlights fundamental areas for improvement when it comes to how police respond and investigate acquisitive crime such as robbery, burglary and theft.

“Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary’s labels the low charge rates across forces as ‘unacceptable and unsustainable’. As Commissioners we will continue to hold our forces to account and we will be monitoring these figures very closely going forwards.

“We will ensure these recommendations receive the necessary attention and action they require, with a view to supporting forces in their compliance of the victims’ code of practice.

“We know that prevention can also be key and as PCCs we are best placed to deliver on this locally. We will continue our work around funding services and initiatives to support all victims of crime and reduce crime in our communities.”

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