The Times – Maverick chief constable builds ‘villains’ file with body cameras

As originally published in The Times on 15/07/17

Police are using body cameras to compile image databases of repeat offenders and known “villains” in order to help track them down in future investigations, The Times has learnt.

Durham Constabulary has become the first force to routinely gather videos of regular offenders so that officers can study their gait and mannerisms, as well as facial features. It means they are no longer reliant on finding suspects using old mugshots.
Officers use the relatively new body-worn video technology to film suspects when they are stopped and searched and also during arrests. While videos are usually deleted after a month unless they are needed for a criminal prosecution, they are kept longer in Durham in the case of suspects who have committed previous offences.

Mike Barton, the chief constable, says: “It is not just about what they look like in their face, it is how they talk and how they deport themselves. I want all our cops to identify villains, what they look like when they’ve turned their back on the police car and they’re walking away. And you do
that by making sure that you video them.”

It is among a number of unique policing methods being deployed by one of the smallest, yet best performing, forces. It is also the first to consider an artificial intelligence (AI) system which would help officers decide whether or not a suspect should be kept in custody.
Speaking from the main atrium of Durham’s headquarters, rather than in his office with the door shut, Mr Barton wants to make sure that he is approachable. PC Martin Nicholson, a response officer, happens to pass by and is asked to describe his unique method of sorting out a drug dealer causing havoc in a local neighbourhood.

PC Nicholson, a police community support officer at the time, asked a team of higher ranking officers to complete all of their paperwork in a marked car outside the criminal’s house instead of at the police station. Shift after shift, they sat outside and eventually unsettled the drug dealer so much that he moved away.
Mr Barton sends PC Nicholson on his way, but only after declaring that he is a “genius”. Mr Barton will introduce several more “geniuses” over the next two hours, including Gary Ridley, an assistant chief officer who describes how Durham has become the first force in the country to offer interest-free loans to its officers and staff. It was prompted by concerns that they might fall into the trap of taking out payday loans. Officers in debt are prone to corruption, so the force has found a fresh way to solve the issue. Similarly, officers with post-traumatic stress are offered the latest psychotherapy.

Chief Superintendent Kerrin Smith drops by. She is no stranger to unique policing, having once jumped into a golf buggy, the only vehicle close by, to nab a criminal. She wants an intern for the unit and is immediately given the green light by Mr Barton. A nearby force, stymied by “process
and structure”, has had to reject bright young applicants.

From the lift decorated to look like an old-fashioned police call box to the open-plan office where meeting rooms are named after famous detectives, there is clearly something different about this northern police force.

Mr Barton has previously gained national prominence over his calls for a relaxation of drug laws. But while that debate has hogged the headlines and seen Mr Barton labelled a maverick police chief, there is far more that sets Durham police apart — not least its inspection results. This year it was awarded a third of all “outstanding” results given to the 43 police forces across England and Wales by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. It was no fluke. Last year Durham, one of the smaller forces with around 2,300 officers and staff, achieved a quarter of all outstanding results.

According to Mr Barton, the key is in empowering his staff, who are allowed to make decisions without endless meetings and paperwork and are encouraged to come up with innovative ideas. He says: “I’ve learnt over time, not only that you have to trust your staff, but you have to demonstrate at every turn that you trust them. If you do that consistently, they’ll astound you with their genius, they’ll astound you with their thinking. If you free up your staff’s problem solving genius, they will just problem-solve.”

The public in Durham are regularly warned about offenders in their midst, in a bid to glean new intelligence.

Mr Barton says: “I’m not driving a coach and horses through the Data Protection Act. I’m saying, let’s share reasonable intelligence with reasonable people so that we can deal with unreasonable people.” Privacy campaigners have voiced concerns about his approach on body-worn video, with
Big Brother Watch warning it was “clearly undermining the wider police claims that the cameras are to guarantee transparency and improve relations between the police and public”.

Mr Barton says that privacy concerns about body cameras generally are “legitimate” and police are subject to oversight and restrictions. In the case of repeat offenders it is reasonable to anticipate further offences and take proactive steps, he says.
While other forces have cut down on neighbourhood policing, he has kept a high level of resources there. He is also not afraid to speak his mind. In the current funding climate, many other senior officers have warned that the public will have to expect less from their police service. While Mr Barton warns that any further cuts would start to affect his force, he adds: “I know as a chief constable the public expect me to do everything, that’s just the way it is. I don’t think that
we’re in the business of ‘either/or’, it has got to be ‘both/and’.”