I recently came across an article concerning the Metropolitan Commissioner’s Excellence in Total Policing Awards and was fascinated by one of the award categories ‘Best Thief Taker.’
Before I comment I want to add my congratulations to all the winners and everybody nominated and clarify that it is not my intention to decry the awards. Quite the opposite really as I know from my own service that many excellent coppers and civilian support personal never get recognised for their work.
Historically a ‘Thief Taker’ was a private individual hired by a crime victim to recover their stolen goods and apprehend the offender prior to the formation of any recognisable police force. However, the only people having any skill in the recovery of stolen goods or capturing criminals were other criminals and many of the successful ‘Thief Takers’ were active criminals themselves and the whole practice became corrupt. Criminals were stealing from victims and then purporting to be a thief-taker who had recovered the victim’s property in order to seek a reward or turning in criminal associates to dispose of their competition.
However, the meaning has clearly changed and back in my day (swing the lamp) being a good ‘Thief Taker’ used to be considered a good attribute. One of the best ‘Thief Takers’ I ever worked with was one of those guys that seemed to fall over criminals whatever they did. If he walked into a local shop for a Mars bar he would probably stumble across a till robbery. If he stopped a car for any reason whatsoever there would probably be a cache of stolen goods in the boot. He simply couldn’t stop crossing paths with criminals and practically every tour of duty resulted in a criminal arrest. I partnered with this guy for many months and we had some great successes and as we were both ‘overtime bandits’ at the time we earned a shed load of overtime.
Now, this particular copper was, without doubt, a good ‘Thief Taker’, but this was in the days before the CPS, when you would take an overnight burglar to Court and get a plea of guilty on the first hearing. Unfortunately as the CPS proceeded to bind the police in red tape and bureaucratic rigmarole the volume of documentation needed to accompany every charged prisoner became greater and greater.
My mate the ‘Thief Taker’ wasn’t really keen on completing form after form after form and before you could shake a stick at an ‘egg banjo’ the number of criminal arrests diminished and he slowly but surely lost interest in the job and retired.
Now, this particular PC arrested hundreds of suspects during his service including some top-level criminals and he has a stack of Commissioners commendations as a result. The trouble was that the paperwork stifled him. Ask any copper from any force or service and they will confirm my assertion that the police are drowning in paper. There were just too many forms and too much red tape nonsense for my mate. This, however, is the reality of the modern police and I can’t see it ever changing, which brings me onto the question “How do you assess if an officer is a good ‘Thief Taker’?”
It can’t be on the number of arrests surely. Is it on the quality of the arrests, because until such time that a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty the arrest can’t be assessed. Many good arrests result in acquittals and that doesn’t mean the arresting officer wasn’t a good ‘Thief Taker’ just because the defendant got off.
What about those officers who slave away for months on a complicated fraud, or teams of detectives all working to arrest one person. Does the arrest of a bank robber equal the arrest of four burglars, two armed robbers or what?
Theft is only one of the criminal offences that Police arrest suspects for, so what about those officers on specialist squads such as murder teams, drug squad officer, sexual offence investigations, the nature of their employment is such that they don’t generally arrest suspects for theft.
I know that there are good ‘Thief Takers’ in every force, but I just don’t see how you can differentiate between officers. Rather than a competition where one person wins wouldn’t it better to acknowledge all those officers deemed to be good ‘Thief Takers’ along with all those other officers doing their job diligently and professionally regardless of the number of arrests made.