Charlotte Lycett Green joins the award-winning team tasked with combating countryside crime
As the UK’s gateway to Europe where freight movements average 10,000 each day along one of the country’s largest motorway networks and some 34 million passengers pass through the county each year, Kent Police are subject to some unique policing problems. The county is challenged by transient crime, smuggling, the importation of drugs, people trafficking and slavery, as well as asylum seekers and London-based gangs infiltrating Kent towns, so it’s easy to see how policing rural crime could slip down the list of priorities. The reality, however, is quite to the contrary.
The Rural Task Force for Kent was launched two years ago. It is a dedicated team of six rural liaison officers and a sergeant, plus a Gypsy liaison team of 10 officers and a sergeant, who are providing Kent’s answer to rural policing. The rural liaison team works in pairs across three divisions in Kent, covering 1,443 square miles and 340 miles of coastline. Kent has a population of 1.78million, which is largely urban based, but since 2014 the chief constable has put a priority on rural policing.
“We have had numerous success stories, but the consistent outstanding service delivery this team has produced to the rural community saw them receive the NFU Mutual Country Crimefighters Award in 2014. They also received a certificate of merit from the chief constable for their work,” said Sergeant Dave Smith.
So how does all this translate to daily operations out on the ground?
On a mission to inform
The team could find themselves dealing with anything from environmental crime such as flytipping to illegal trophy diving on ancient shipwrecks. Seventy per cent of their time, though, is spent talking to farmers, landowners and gamekeepers, gathering information about crimes such as illegal hare coursing and theft of vehicles, farm machinery, diesel and working dogs. It’s also about education, of the public and of fellow officers.
“Some rural communities don’t realise that crimes are being committed in their area,” said rural liaison officer PC Darren Reed. “I attended a parish council meeting recently and explained there was a huge problem with hare coursing in the area — nobody had a clue what I was talking about.
“And we frequently get calls about people who are shooting pigeon perfectly legally from members of the public who believe they are committing an offence. So it’s important to educate the public and, on occasion, fellow officers. We provide advice to other patrols so that if they end up attending a coursing incident, for example, they don’t waste an opportunity because of a lack of understanding of the issue and the damage it causes to the landowner’s property and crops.”
Talking to the rural community
Good relationships and communication with landowners, farmers and keepers, plus a policeman’s good nose, is key to success. “Our working day hinges on talking to the rural community,” said PC Reed. “We have a good idea now of how they go about their business. We are not experts in every issue that arises, but from the snippets of information that we receive it’s amazing what you can learn and use in the job that we do.”
Historically people have often been reticent to report rural crime, usually because they know response times to be pedestrian, they think nothing will be done about it or are worried it might impact negatively on their business or reputation. in these cases information often gets to the team through less obvious channels.
“The National Farmers’ Union often helps in these instances,” said fellow rural liaison team officer PC Geordie Laidlaw. “A lot of people will sooner tell the NFU than us and we have lines of communication with people there that enable us to act on certain pieces of information they provide us.”
Gamekeepers help with policing rural crime
Gamekeepers, too, are a vital source of information for the team. “The gamekeepers we know are pivotal in providing us with information,” said PC Wayne Wright. “It’s amazing how shooting connects people who live at opposite ends of the county.”
“Before this team was launched, there was a real need for a group of officers like us,” said Sergeant Dave Smith. “Farmers were telling us we hadn’t got a clue what we were doing. there was a clear need for proper training. Prosecutions went from two in the whole year before our team was established to 14 in the first month of our existence — that’s giving the public and victims a proper service.”
Another valuable tool at the team’s disposal is social media. Recently, for example, they posted a trailcam image of some individuals poaching with crossbows from a pheasant pen. “We were sent the pictures and as a result of posting them on Twitter and other sources we were able to investigate the crime,” said PC Wright. “We had two search warrants and arrested somebody who matched the identity, but there was no further evidence and unfortunately he had to be released without charge. But even though we didn’t get a successful conviction on this occasion, it put the word out there that we were on to them and the poaching stopped.”
Chipping and marking
The theft of working dogs is an issue and the team welcomes the new legislation that now requires all dogs to be microchipped.
“Working dogs are often kennelled or running about loose,” said PC Reed. “So it’s easy for opportunist thieves who are driving about to see a dog and scoop it up into a vehicle — they know that they are worth money. It’s frustrating when we find dogs and they are not microchipped.
“We recently investigated the crime of a spaniel stolen from Faversham that had been moved to a site in Brenzett on Romney Marsh, where it was sold to somebody in Sussex. It was sold with mange so the buyer took it to the vet, who scanned it for a microchip and discovered it was stolen. We were involved, followed the chain back to Brenzett and arrested a male and female. The RSPCA removed a further two animals and prosecuted.”
As with microchipping, similar emphasis needs to apply to marking and keeping photographic records of machinery, equipment and other valued possessions. “It’s really important to record chassis numbers and serial numbers,” said PC Dan Perry. “We deal with so many thefts of quad bikes and ATVs. People should [at least] take pictures of any distinguishing features; we often find vehicles, trailers or machinery that are not marked and this makes it much harder to return to the owner.”
Out on patrol to police rural crime
Charlotte Lycett Green joined PC Preston “Frostie” Frost and Darren “Daz” Reed, who each have nearly 30 years’ police service, on a 10-hour shift, starting at 1pm and finishing at 11pm one Monday.
“We are lucky here in Kent, because lots of Forces don’t have any rural officers,” said Frostie. “We have the time and energy to talk to people who have persistent problems and get together a plan of action to help them out. Senior management seems to have realised how important rural crime is and that it needs more resources.”
Statistically, Sundays see the highest rate of rural crime, closely followed by Monday, so I knew that the chance of being there when something happened was reasonable.
As dusk fell, we visited a traveller site before heading north to the Isle of Sheppey, a desolate place that is home to three prisons and many caravan parks. Driving towards Minster on the north coast of the island, Daz spotted a lamp sweeping across a field near some houses, a mile away from us. We turned the car round to head back towards it, but as soon as we approached, the lamp went out.
Frostie and Daz stopped and jumped out of the car with their thermal-imaging equipment and soon spotted a quad bike with two people on board, driving around the perimeter of the field. What initially looked like a suspicious situation turned out to be entirely innocent when the quad bike drove towards us and Frostie and Daz recognised the driver as the son of the landowner.
Their chat was soon cut short, however, when we were suddenly called to an incident at a nearby caravan park: two men had abandoned a vehicle at the site and run off.
With blue lights flashing and sirens on full blast, we shot through the night to the caravan park. Two police community support officers (PCSOs) were in attendance. As they’d driven past the vehicle, the driver had immediately pulled into the caravan park and he and his passenger had legged it. The PCSOs had recognised the driver to be a known criminal who was tagged, had no driving licence and the car was not insured. The two men had jumped over the wall and disappeared across a field, bordered on two sides by deep dykes. Frostie and Daz had a good look for them with the thermal-imaging camera but they were long gone, despite us only having taken a few minutes to arrive.
“We know the driver; he’s committed several rural crimes such as pinching birds and dogs — he even stole another villain’s prize parrot,” said Frostie.
“We’ll seize his vehicle on the basis that the PCSO correctly identified the driver and he has no driving licence and the car is not insured. They have pool cars that they use for crime, so this will be one less vehicle for them to be out committing crime in tonight.”