The laughing policemen: 'Inaccurate' data boosts arrest rate

Officers accused of targeting 'law-abiding middle classes' to meet government performance quotas

Police are using controversial car-surveillance technology aimed at catching criminals and terrorists to target members of the public in order to meet government performance targets and raise revenue, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Police whistleblowers also claim that intelligence stored on the national Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) database is "at least 30 per cent inaccurate", which has led to the wrongful arrest of innocent motorists and the seizure of their cars.

The revelations highlight growing concerns about a burgeoning target culture among enforcement agencies and local authorities seeking to bolster figures and income with so-called soft arrests and fines on otherwise law-abiding members of the public.

The UK's soft-crime initiative is now a multimillion-pound industry: parking fines levied last year totalled £330m, with another £100m from speed cameras. These numbers are expected to grow, along with fines for a burgeoning range of offences for everything from overloading wheelie bins to feeding the ducks. Some 200,000 spot fines for these garnered £12m last year.

Critics say this has the dual corrosive effect of penalising the mostly law-abiding middle class, while diverting enforcement resources from more serious, but hard-to-prosecute criminals. The disclosures also undermine police assurances that "law-abiding citizens need have no fear" of the UK-wide surveillance network of spy cameras.

ANPR was originally used in counter-terrorism operations in Northern Ireland. However, since the late 1990s it has been introduced on Britain's roads. A network of static and mobile cameras surrounds major cities and monitors motorways and main roads. Each camera can capture over 3,500 images of licence plates and drivers an hour. The pictures are cross-referenced with police intelligence and data from DVLA and insurance firms to generate "hits" which are then sent to police.

Internal documents seen by the IoS suggest zealous use of the ANPR system by some officers in Hertfordshire Police, the lead force for developing ANPR strategies, led to a disturbing culture among its road policing teams. So fixated had officers become on their pursuit of arrests and ticket quotas that, until recently, the most successful vied for a prize known as the Bang It Out Cup. The officer with fewest results received the booby prize of an Underperforming Pig.

This target culture has allegedly led to unethical practices during roadside stops, according to concerned police sources. Some officers, they say, trawl through drivers' personal data on police databases to find any reason to arrest. Alternatively, they "wind up" motorists who, in their frustration, become abusive and are then arrested for a public-order offence.

"In short, officers do not have a complete understanding of the law, use flawed databases to justify immediate seizures, fail to adequately research and evidence the basis of their belief and almost certainly knowingly seize vehicles just to satisfy service and personal performance targets," one said.

Defects in the database have already led, in at least one case, to dangerous practices. In 2008, 16-year-old Hayley Adamson was killed by a Northumberland police officer responding at high speed to incorrect information on the ANPR. The officer was jailed last year.

Critics claim there is "manipulation" of performance figures to make ANPR look more successful as a crime-fighting tool. The police accept it "may be out of date" and sources in Hertfordshire Police say it is "at best only 70 per cent accurate". One said: "The longest time a vehicle has taken to enter the database is 208 days from the date of the insurance commencement."

Whistleblowers also expressed concern that managers are "engineering" arrests to meet targets. Officers have been sent to re-arrest drivers fined for driving without insurance. Before cars can be released from the pound the driver has to apply for insurance. "[Officers were] checking with insurers if Mr Smith had declared his recent penalty," said one officer. "If the answer was 'no' they arrested him for obtaining insurance fraudulently."

Hertfordshire officers say they have reported concerns to senior managers but believe they are being ignored, as good performance targets and revenue earned from ANPR are too important.

There are concerns that other forces might be using and abusing ANPR to boost arrest and prosecution figures. Norman Baker, the transport spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "It sounds like a ludicrous approach and one that will criminalise ordinary motorists." And Damian Green, the Conservative home affairs spokesman, said: "Trust will be damaged if officers rely on a database containing incorrect information."

Hugh Bladon, a spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, said: "We all know that drivers are treated as easy targets, but I am appalled if 30 per cent of the database is inaccurate."

Hertfordshire Police, which has a media strategy to put out "good news stories" about ANPR, has seized more than 7,800 cars in the past 20 months.

Chris Miller, Hertfordshire's Assistant Chief Constable, said that since its launch last June, the county's "Operation Sentinel" ANPR unit had arrested well over 470 people for offences including drug dealing, drink driving, armed robbery and murder. He added: "Many residents have given us very positive feedback on how ANPR is making their communities even safer."

ANPR manager Inspector Andy Piper said: "Hertfordshire Constabulary does not have any ANPR incentive schemes, and would never support such a scheme. If staff were found to be involved in any informal competition for ANPR arrests, they would be dealt with appropriately."

Stranded: 'Police left me alone in the dark'

Bhnisha Hirani, 28, drove from Essex to Coventry to collect her belongings last October after splitting up with a boyfriend whom she feared.

She says her request for a local police escort was refused as no officers were available. But two arrived later at the ex-boyfriend's house and seized her car for being uninsured. She offered her policy number, but says the officer refused to investigate why the car did not show up on the ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) database. Police guidelines warn that ANPR data should not replace "thorough investigative inquiries and officer discretion".

Ms Hirani said the officers left her in the dark outside the house. "I was stranded – no money, no food, no coat, nothing." She stayed with a distant relative who lent her £150 to have the car released the next day.

In her complaint, she wrote: "I had offered every possible form of confirmation of my insurance at the scene and [the officer] refused to look at it. His actions were unlawful and... I will be seeking the highest level of damages."

West Midlands Police are conducting an internal inquiry.

Watching you, watching me

Parking

Millions of aggrieved motorists will tell you that parking wardens have no interest in reasonable excuses, such as "I only stopped for two minutes to look at a map" or "The yellow lines were obscured by snow." Appeal away – but in the meantime drivers often risk seeing the fine double after two weeks. Wardens in Islington, north London, recently ticketed a woman who left her scooter at the scene of a crash. Another familiar complaint is the use of anti-crime CCTV – supposedly meant to catch crooks stealing cars, and record street muggings – being used to dole out yet more tickets. In total, drivers paid out £330m in parking penalties last year. Another £100m was raised in speed-trap fines.

Putting out the rubbish

Some local authorities are so strict on wheelie-bin etiquette that even the slightest shred of black bin-bag poking out of the top of the bin can lead to a fine being issued. A family in Copeland, Cumbria, were given a £210 penalty when it was discovered – horror of horrors – that their bin was over-filled by four inches. Leicester City Council recently began fining residents £100 if their wheelie bins were put out on the wrong day.

Smoking

We all know that pubs, cafés, offices – and any other public place with a roof over it – are no-go areas for smokers. But surely you can puff away in your own home or car? Aberystwyth Town Council handed out a £30 fine to a decorator for smoking in his van, arguing that the vehicle represented his workplace.

Litter

You might think this one would come with a sliding scale, with fines relevant to how much mess you leave behind. How much, then, for a dropped ice-lolly stick? Schoolgirl Sorrell Walsh, 16 at the time, was told to pay £75 in an on-the-spot fine in 2006 after leaving one on a wall. Flicking a dab of ash out of a car window and dropping a slice of tomato out of a sandwich have led to fines elsewhere. Police officers issue around 200,000 on-the-spot fines each year, roughly amounting to £12m.

Feeding the ducks

The traditional fun of kids throwing bread for the birds in the park is fraught with financial danger in the West Midlands. Sandwell Council issued a £75 penalty to Vanessa Kelly in November last year for feeding geese "outside designated feeding areas". Her son, Harry, had the last laugh: At 17 months, he's too young to be prosecuted and can fatten up the birds to his heart's content.

On your bike

If police officers in Yorkshire manage to spot unwary cyclists riding without lights at night, they will issue them with a £30 fine. In London, around 100 people a month are fined for riding their bicycles on the pavement.

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