Hampshire: first county-wide data-sharing network to find and punish travelling shoplifters

  • First police force-wide data sharing group helps identify travelling shoplifters
  • Network helps Hampshire Constabulary target resources on prolific offenders
  • Easy-to-use ‘matching’ process based on sophisticated search algorithm
  • Changes the way low-level criminals are identified, managed and brought to justice

The first county-wide information-sharing system for local crime reduction partnerships targeting travelling, prolific shoplifters, has been launched in Hampshire.

The network links together business crime reduction partnerships (BCRPs) in the county's four largest population centres - Portsmouth, Southampton, Winchester and Basingstoke. It enables them to pool their information in order to identify offenders who are known in more than one of the partnerships - and therefore can reasonably be suspected of being travelling, potentially prolific, thieves.

The four participating BCRPs all use the DISC online system for crime reduction partnerships, and the network is the first county-wide deployment of a Cross-DISC Data Sharing Group. The Partnerships use their DISC systems to manage their own local partnerships and their banning schemes - but by linking together into a Data Sharing Group, each DISC Administrator can now easily check to see if any new offender in their own area is also known elsewhere. It also helps them put names to unidentified CCTV images.

While the immediate beneficiaries of the network are the retailers who make up the membership of the four Partnerships, police stand to gain too. For its part, Hampshire Constabulary has long supported the work of its BCRPs, for example by sharing its confidential intelligence with them. Police around the UK are increasingly keen to support local groups in the fight against low-level crime and anti-social behaviour. The new network takes this one step further.

Says Chief Inspector Patrick Holdaway, who heads up Hampshire Constabulary’s business crime initiatives: "We work closely with local business communities and BCRPs, and share intelligence with them. Anything that helps identify criminals, particularly travelling or professional shoplifters is invaluable, and enables us to focus our resources where they can achieve the most benefit.

“My priority was around the legality of sharing our data through the new Data Sharing Group, and to ensure that the constabulary was not exposed. So we passed everything by the joint Hampshire Constabulary & Thames Valley Police Information Management Unit, who gave the scheme the green light. So of course we’re delighted to see the deployment of the Hampshire-wide Cross-DISC Data Sharing Group".

According to Chris Caesar, Crime Manager of Portsmouth BCRP: "We work on behalf of retailers throughout the city to identify and monitor low-level offenders and, if necessary, ban them from our members' premises. Most of these offenders only operate locally, and many of them are well-known low-level thieves and banning them helps to protect our retailers from further theft – plus encourages the offenders to improve their behaviours.

"The new data-sharing network helps us identify offenders who we may become aware of at a local level - but who turn out to be travelling beyond our own immediate vicinity, and are therefore potentially prolific. Knowing who are 'prolifics' helps our retailers become more vigilant, and of course sharing that information with other Partnerships helps their retailers too. The very first time I used the new system I identified an offender known locally to us, who it turns out is known in one of the other Partnership areas. That’s impressive!".

Says Jane Bastock, Business Crime Reduction Officer at Winchester Business Improvement District: "Local low-level crime reduction is a priority for Winchester BID so we're delighted we can share our intelligence with other partnerships across the county in this way. I used the system as soon as it became available and the facility is really excellent. It should help our members enormously".

The Cross-DISC Data Sharing system is simple to use: when the Administrator of one of the Partnerships in the group adds a new offender or incident into their local system they can click on a tool which automatically searches the combined databases of the participating Partnerships for 'matches'. Once a match has been found, the system enables the Administrators to contact each other direct with a single click, to check that the individual is indeed the same person and, if so, to agree to share that data between themselves.

The simplicity of the system conceals a sophisticated search technique. Says Charlie Newman of Littoralis, the company behind the DISC system: "The one-click matching process applies a highly complex search algorithm across the combined databases, and uses a large number of search criteria. Obviously the Offender's name is important - if it's available - but the matching compares build, gender, ethnicity, any other visual characteristics, the type of offences associated with the individuals and any other information that may be available including address, date of birth and so on. Not all this information is available of course, but the algorithm simply uses everything known about an offender to fetch a list of possible matches, ranked by similarity.

"The beauty of the system is that it doesn't rely on still-unproven automated facial recognition systems which only work tolerably well with clearly lit, well-defined, full-face images – and most CCTV images are very far from that. The Cross-DISC Data Sharing system simply selects the top-20 best-matches and then enables the Administrator to visually compare the images to confirm that any of them are, indeed, the same individual.”

DISC is by far the most widely used online system for business crime reduction partnerships in the UK, currently covering over 230 towns and city-centres. Littoralis believes that Cross-DISC Data Sharing Groups will change the way low-level crimes, and the perpetrators behind them, are identified, managed and brought to justice. Cross-DISC Data Sharing Groups have already been set up in London, but the new Hampshire group is the first to extend across an entire police force area. More Cross-DISC Data-Sharing Groups will be announced in the next few months.