Mark Hallas heads up Crimestoppers. He talks to me about how they sift through the vast amount of information reported anonymously to them every year and while there has been a shift to online reporting, some people just want to pick up the phone.
When I met Mark at the NPCC/APCC national conference, he told me he had been CEO of Crimestoppers for the last ten years after a career in military intelligence. As he spoke, all I could think about was how terrified I was of Crimewatch as Mark evoked a sepia soaked memory of my teen years watching Nick Ross on the BBC reporting terrible crimes that were entirely alien to my rural upbringing.
Crimewatch first hit our screens in 1984 presented by Nick Ross. Four years later, after the tragic death of PC Keith Blakelock, Crimestoppers was set up to give the public the chance to report crime anonymously through a free phone line. Today, more than 80 per cent of reports are completed online with a core of people still preferring to call in.
“We are an independent charity, take calls, without fear or favour, and we don’t pass comment.”
It takes a lot of resource to deal with 600,000 contacts in a year where nearly a third end up being passed on to police forces. It explains why Crimestoppers has 99 full time equivalent staff, hundreds of volunteers and needs £6m to run. The money comes partly from Police and Crime Commissioners and the Home Office but also from commercial activities and youth focused work.
I’m interested in how they deal with all that information. Mark says that the principles of intelligence in the military apply equally to policing and he makes the distinction, “Intelligence is processed information. We just pass on information.” He uses the phrase ‘without fear or favour’ a few times during our interview and it’s clear to me that the tenet of anonymity that underpins Crimestoppers is the key to its success.
A member of the public calls Crimestoppers and provides information to a skilled call handler. Through their tenacious questioning, they triage the call and determine whether a crime has potentially been committed and passes it on to the local police force. They do the same with forms completed online. Call handlers transfer the information using the police’s secure communications system.
That feels a bit clunky, and Mark explains that they try to use structured forms as much as possible, but the value of free text fields cannot be underestimated as that is often where the rich information can be found. They walk a fine line between information gathering and alienating the caller by asking for too much. He adds that they are experimenting with ‘auto ingest’ so that information gathered by Crimestoppers can go directly into police force systems, improving efficiency along the way, although he is keen to emphasise that the human element will never be removed from the information gathering activity.
Levels of awareness in police forces
With so many new recruits into policing through the Home Office uplift programme, there are thousands of new police officers who may not know about the role that Crimestoppers plays. Mark says that the College of Policing is integrating information about Crimestoppers into the curriculum for new recruits but there is always work to be done to maintain awareness among intelligence staff and senior investigating officers. He is concerned about churn in police forces and losing the vital champions who support his work at a local level.
Closing the feedback loop
Some callers will get back in touch with Crimestoppers to find out if the information they supplied helped to make a difference.
“We can’t tell them either way. We often get people ringing us back up. We thank them for passing on the information. It’s tricky, the impact of information is not always immediate.”
He adds that more often a caller will see the outcome in the media, possibly months or years later and know that they played some part in that success.
Mark refers to his time on the HMICFRS Reference Group for the police PEEL inspections, saying that he was keen for the inspectors to ask how police forces were working with charity partners and to find evidence if the feedback loop is working between forces and partners like Crimestoppers. He says that the force level inspection reports and the annual State of Policing publication broadly reflect the trends that he and his team identify by reviewing Crimestoppers information. Similarly, he sees the same with Home Office statistics.
Evidence base for success
Mark’s move to Crimestoppers in 2013 coincided with the election of the first Police and Crime Commissioners. As the budget holders for police funds, he knew he had to win them over about the value of his ‘offer’. In his first six months, he visited every PCC and now the mission is less urgent as there is a broad acceptance of the value of Crimestoppers. There is still a need to maintain close working relationships and demonstrate through evidence that the investment is worthwhile.
We talk about how Crimestoppers measures success and feeds that back to its customers – the PCCs and Home Office but also the public who step forward and supply the information in the first place. What does success look like?
“Our success is of course based on more calls, more contacts, more dissemination; more criminals arrested, more crimes prevented.” These are important but blunt measures and Mark emphasises the less tangible human elements of success. “These metrics are obvious, but more importantly, we want more people feeling that they are listened to, that they are not on their own. We’re here for everybody but we are here for the most vulnerable communities, the disenfranchised, and those who struggle to talk to the police directly.”
Crimestoppers is clearly a valuable asset to policing and as Mark and his team continues to work with PCCs, police forces and national bodies like the NPCC, it will go from strength to strength. The mantra of `Speak up. Stay Safe’ is more relevant than ever.