Targeting small core of suspects pays off in burglary campaign: Police yesterday raided 440 homes in a drive against house-breaking. Terry Kirby reports

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IT IS possible but statistically unproved that very few criminals are responsible for the staggering rise in crime over the past few years.

The success of Operation Bumblebee, the Metropolitan Police's anti- burglary initiative that has cut the number of burglaries, stems from the estimate that about 300 people are responsible for more than 60 per cent of London break-ins.

Yesterday's raids resulted in the arrest of more than 300 people. Shotguns and other weapons were recovered, along with credit cards, electronic equipment and drugs.

The police tactic behind the operation is simple. The suspects, being habitual offenders, are easily identifiable, so their names are collated, their whereabouts established and large numbers are arrested at once. Paul Condon, the Commissioner, has suggested that the practice might be extended to car crime.

Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Flint, head of crime policy at Scotland Yard, says Bumblebee's success proves that a core of repeat offenders, particularly juveniles, has been responsible for the national crime increase.

It is only recently that financial restrictions and rising crime have forced police to target known offenders in the bulk crime categories - car crime, street robberies and burglaries - rather than investigate every crime to an equal degree. This, Mr Flint admits, is perhaps surprising: 'It is simply an extension of what all patrolling uniformed officers know about their own patches - that there are perhaps half a dozen individuals or families responsible for the bulk of crime.'

The 'small core' concept applies best to bulk offences and those where crimes are far less numerous: terrorism, armed robbery and drug dealing. The National Criminal Intelligence Service has in its sights between 400 and 500 major criminals involved in drugs, fraud and organised crime.

As Bumblebee demonstrates, the theory works. In Cheltenham, Gloucestershire - a county that has seen spectacular rises in burglary and car theft - a recently formed burglary squad concentrates on a couple of problem estates where most of the known burglars live; it is estimated that a dozen or so people could be responsible for the area's reputation.

But police say that as fast as suspects are being arrested, they are being given bail. An awareness of the number of crimes some offenders commit has underlined recent police concern about magistrates' increased willingness to give bail.

In Northumbria, police say that between 1989 and 1991, 23 per cent of those arrested were on bail and 40 per cent of all detected crimes were committed by offenders on bail. The figures rise in the bulk crimes: 53 per cent of house burglaries and 54 per cent of thefts from cars were committed by offenders on bail.

The force believes that by targeting known offenders it has cut the crime rate by 3.5 per cent in the first six months of the year - it is one of the few forces to record a reduction.

But no one can substantiate with statistics what the bail figures imply about the minority responsible for crime; the Bumblebee estimate is based on the detailed knowledge of local burglary squads.

Mr Flint acknowledges that more detailed statistics would be a valuable aid in the fight, but he cautions: 'A careful balance has to be struck between better targeting of the Bumblebee type and setting up specialist squads every time there is a problem: they can become self-perpetuating and outlive their usefulness.'