Detective Chief Inspector Mark Hooper of the Association of Chief Police Officers Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service talks toRichard Brown about the work of the unit and the Finance & Leasing Association ahead of Car Crime Awareness Week at the end of last month.
As with any coverage of policing in the UK, there is always a glut of divisions and units to comprehend. The Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (VCIS), responsible for combating organised vehicle crime and the use of vehicles in crime, is run by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), hence AVCIS.
Born out of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) and the National Crime Squad, reorganised under the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and then taken on by ACPO, the service is, therefore, the police unit responsible for tackling car finance fraud.
"A lot of acronyms, Im afraid," says DCI Mark Hooper.
The unit was begun by Kent Assistant Chief Constable David Ainsworth, who held the portfolio for vehicle crime and persuaded the Home Office to fund it.
Hooper explains the work of the unit was "to maintain a strategic overview of what was happening in the world of vehicle crime," thus capitalising on reductions in vehicle theft and crimes since the late 1990s, and also to offer support to local police forces.
"We have 43 police forces in England and Wales. They all do their own thing. Generally, there is little cooperation between them unless a crime has escalated up to a regional level or a national threat, in which case its dealt with by SOCA.
"Vehicle crime tended to fall outside of that. Forces tended to do their own thing."
It was Ainsworths role, says Hooper, to "maintain a bit of organisational memory," to share car crime information across UK police forces and that became the remit of the service upon establishment in 2006.
As the unit expanded from three to more than 20 officers, so did the remit of the service to local and national levels; from thefts of or from vehicles to what Hooper calls "vehicle-enabled crime" which could include travel by criminals, using a car as down payment instead of cash, or selling the parts and metal of a stolen car.
AVCIS then absorbed a handful of other functional teams including the Vehicle Fraud Unit, which predates the service and had initially been funded by the Metropolitan Police and the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA).
According to Hooper, the unit was a reaction to FLA members request for the police to "something a bit more switched on" about vehicle fraud, given industry frustration with customers disappearing after the first few repayments on dealership finance. Such behaviour was reclassified from theft to fraud under the 2006 Fraud Act but the initial police reaction had been to treat it as a contractual issue of civil debt and civil litigation, rather than criminal.
The Vehicle Fraud Unit was begun in Merseyside, moved to London and then to join AVCIS at their Warwickshire headquarters, where it has been run since 2007.
Foreign and domestic
As part of the arrangement with the FLA, three of the AVCIS officers are based at ports in the South East, Tilbury, Felixstowe and Southampton, to scan and register information regarding freight forwarders and shippers taking cars and to the foreign markets to which they are taken.
"Staggeringly, theres not control at all in the UK on what you export," says Hooper. "You can load whatever you like into a container, seal it up, declare whatever you fancy to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), stick it on the back of a lorry and take it out on a boat.
"Because its not inbound, HRMC are not worried in terms of duty revenue or a counter-terrorism threat. Criminals do tend to exploit that and they follow legitimate markets for vehicles.
"New and second-hand vehicles are shipped all over the world. Where there are places that have good tax breaks on importation for example, so obviously criminals follow them.
"It would be a misconception to think that all stolen vehicles are going out through those three ports in the UK. Its just where we tend to look most. When you lift the rock, you tend to find stuff. It doesnt mean theres nothing underneath the rocks you havent lifted."
The three officers recording these routes and habits report to Hooper in Coventry, as do all operational and intelligence matters, but work remotely in the ports, typical of the AVCIS make up.
"Theyre all based in their own police forces," through which funding may be available, rather than through ACPO, which is not a police authority. "Were comprised of a fair mixture here. The vast majority of the team are all seconded from various forces from West Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Thames Valley and other forces."
Of those forces, several regularly dominate the HPI Crushwatch figures for vehicles recovered with outstanding finance (see table Top cops).
"They just happen to be particularly good," says Hooper. "Crushwatch has been taken up by most, if not all, forces by now and some are particularly effective."
Most recoveries, according to Hooper, come from traffic officers and those forces performing well tend to be those with the most police dealing with cars. As vehicle crime and casualties have fallen, so has the amount of policing which deals with both. In turn, as police budgets tighten, vehicle units and traffic departments are the ones cut.
"I think there are only two stolen car squads left now in the country, where there used to be 13 or 14," Hooper says. "Where those people are based reflects on how they perform."
Those were the days
Likewise, Car Crime Awareness Week has accommodated reduced police budgeting.
"We used to be part funded by government and part funded by private sector sponsorship, which was a good arrangement. About 25% of our budget came from the Home Office by way of a grant, and the remainder came from the private sector and some EU project money.
"In Spring last year, the Home Office funding was withdrawn. Ive had to refocus almost exclusively on the privately-funded work, rather than the government work.
"For the last couple of years weve run Car Crime Awareness Week using a media company called RSM. That relationship is terminated now.
"The operation we are currently running in the South East force looking at people trafficking stolen vehicles out by hiding them in containers and curtain-side lorries thats due to wrap up at the end of March.
"Weve been severely handicapped by the withdrawal of our grant which provided a balance to what we do. Its very much focused on what sponsors want and ultimately its up to them to decide how they release stuff out through Car Crime Awareness Week.
"The days of me going on TV and reminding people not to leave their keys in the ignition, are gone, I’m afraid."
Walking the wire
In austere times for all public services the pressure is on police services to balance their work. Many of the units incorporated into AVCIS are privately funded, permitted by the 1996 Police Act, which Hooper acknowledges is "a little bit contentious", referring to recent, lurid newspaper claims of cash-for-cuffs.
"Were one of the few countries in the world that allows it," explains Hooper, yet the system is tested regularly by the disclosures and probity of the High Court and the rules are strict.
Those who fund police activity may not influence operations, arrests or case disposal. Funding, says Hooper, is more for "thematic ideas, community involvement and social responsibility."
For AVCIS in particular, passing between many constabulary acronyms has meant taking on many of such ideas.
"Police budgets are so badly affected they have to focus on the major threats.
"Theres been a shift away from ACPOs engagement with functions like AVCIS. They want the National Crime Agency to be the national issue. We were really a stopgap between NCIS folding, SOCA starting, and now the National Crime Agency.
"Ainsworth moved from Kent to Wiltshire on promotion, we persuaded the Wiltshire Police Authority to process our administration. We had to find a police that would be willing to process our bills and wages."
Hooper expects further change in September with the election of Police and crime commissioners which, although expected by the Home Office to demonstrate a national outlook, will have to satisfy the demands of the local taxpayers that voted for them.
For specialist investigations, such as the Insurance Fraud Enforcement Department funded by the Association of British Insurers or e-crime units holding strategic partnerships with "big players", Hooper feels further private sponsorship will become obligatory as the cost of such crime is passed on to the public as consumers and therefore "doesnt feature, doesnt flag, the police forces wont have the resources.
"Its quite hard sometimes to convince people of the merits of it. You can see the concerns, but the safeguards are absolutely crystal clear as to what you can and cant do.
"The whole point of the FLA agreement was to stop the demand on local police forces. People want to report their crimes; would you rather report it to specialist units that know what theyre talking about or try to battle through somebody beleaguered with a hundred other things to do?"