In March police in one of the worst burglary hotspots in Leeds started using scientific methods to try to predict when and where incidents would occur. Crime reporter Sam Casey found out the operation is yielding remarkable results.
Leeds has long been saddled with the unwanted distinction of being among the most burgled cities in Britain.
In 2005 it was branded Britain’s burglary capital by one house insurer. Last year, three of the areas in another company’s list of the top 10 burglary hotspots had ‘LS’ postcodes.
Leeds’s statistics were largely responsible for leaving West Yorkshire languishing below every other police force in the country in terms of burglary.
The figures were so bad that in 2010 the Audit Commission shamed the city authorities by giving them a ‘red flag’ – an indication that the problem was out of control.
Now, with lessons learned from this unenviable past, police are demonstrating the art of predicting the future to dramatically slash burglary rates in what have traditionally been some of the worst-hit parts of Leeds.
Since March, the area covered by the North West Leeds division of West Yorkshire Police – including Hyde Park, Armley, Bramley, Stanningley, Headingley, Weetwood, Kirkstall, Woodhouse, Pudsey, Aireborough and surrounding neighbourhoods – has seen almost 50 per cent fewer burglaries than during the same period last year.
The figures prompted Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison to tell the YEP: “I predict that the world is going to come to Leeds to find out what’s going on because the results we are seeing are so phenomenal.”
Using analytical techniques developed in university research laboratories, officers are now able to anticipate when and where crooks may strike – and plough resources into stopping them.
Chief Supt Dave Oldroyd, divisional commander for north west Leeds, said: “We’re looking backwards at what’s happened to look forwards and predict where burglaries will happen.
“As an old-fashioned cop, if you’d shown me this a few years ago I’d have told you to get lost.
“But the results speak for themselves.”
The tactics, under what is called Operation Optimal, are based on research carried out by renowned criminologist Prof Ken Pease, who developed the concept of the ‘optimal forager’.
Chief Supt Oldroyd, who leads work on acquistive crime in Leeds, explained: “The idea is that most burglars never move very far – they will go back to where they know, where they have had a success. where they understand the layouts of the areas and the properties.
“That’s where we deploy our staff and our resources, no matter what.”
In the divisional control room at Weetwood police station, staff map out where and when burglaries have taken place and assign areas that require a specific police presence at a specific time.
“We’ve always had hotspots, but this enables us to identify what are more like hot dots because it’s so specific,” said Chief Supt oldroyd.
“Through this we’re able to make sure our officers are better deployed.”
The results have been remarkable. Before Optimal was introduced, there were 80 burglaries a week in north west Leeds. The average weekly figure is now 40.
As well as preventing burglaries, the operation is also helping to find offenders more quickly when they do.
Chief Supt Oldroyd said: “My favourite story is one case where we had a PCSO in a high-risk area at 8am on a Sunday, probably when she was wondering why she was bothering. She came across three lads carrying a guitar, and stopped them. They were known criminals but there was no proof they had done anything wrong so she let them go.
“Then she walked around the corner and there was a door wide open. She walked in and woke the occupant up to tell him and he said, ‘My guitar’s gone’.
“Within 20 minutes the three lads were locked up with the guitar.
“This stuff is so good that sometimes we’re detecting the crime before it has been reported.”
Optimal is one strand of a raft of work that is being done by police, in conjunction with other agencies in the city under the Safer Leeds Partnership, to get a grip on the burglary problem.
Social services and youth offending staff are working with problem families to try to discourage youngsters who are at risk of falling into crime.
Persistent offenders who fail to change are monitored at home.
Such is the desire to make inroads, the criminal courts have been given licence to hand out tougher sentences to anyone who commits a burglary in Leeds than they may get elsewhere.
Insp Simon Jessop, who leads the Leeds District Burglary Taskforce set up last year to co-ordinate the three divisions’ response to burglary, said: “We started off with 22 to 25 offences a day in Leeds. Now I’m sweating if we have 15 across the city. It’s a massive reduction.”
Sir Norman added: “When you turn the wheel on the bridge of the super tanker, it takes a while for the ship to turn. But finally the prow is starting to come round.”