Clone warfare in Sheffield as police tackle crime on city's roads

The police radio buzzes with updates, over the faint sound of Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al, as we weave through traffic at nearly 90mph.

Monday, 2nd September 2019, 09:57 am
Updated Monday, 2nd September 2019, 16:04 pm

It's the culmination of a major undercover operation, following a series of robberies around Sheffield, and there's no time to waste.

Plain clothes officers have spotted the prime suspect, who they've been trying to trace for weeks, and we're on the way to make sure he doesn't give them the slip.

PC Tim Scothern

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The suspect is apparently oblivious to the fact he's being followed, yet in the few minutes we've been on the road the rapid-fire alerts have detailed how he's got into two different vehicles and is now on foot.

Constable Tim Scothern, who's at the wheel, calmly explains how we need to get to the scene urgently in case he twigs on and tries to escape by car.

Ultimately, officers swoop to arrest him just as we're closing in on the location - so there's no need for a high-speed chase, and the blue lights and siren are switched off for now.

The morning's drama was not what I expected when I sat down minutes earlier to interview Tim, a field intelligence officer on South Yorkshire Police's Operational Support Unit, based in Tinsley.

PC Tim Scothern trains other officers in pursuit driving

But it illustrates how his job, which involves making sense of an avalanche of information concerning vehicles potentially involved in crime, is about much more than tracking down untaxed and uninsured cars.

"Every criminal has a motor vehicle or access to one, and that's where they're most vulnerable," he explains.

"They can hide in as many houses as they like but if they're out in a motor vehicle we have the greatest chance of stopping them.

"We can use the information coming in to catch them before they commit a crime, while they're doing it or while they're spending the spoils."

PC Tim Scothern set up Operation Fuego, which has led to around 130 arrests and £2 million worth of drugs being seized

The intelligence pouring into Tim comes from numerous sources, including bobbies on the beat, members of the public and, yes, HMRC.

He typically receives anywhere between 100 and 200 reports a day, and it's his task to verify, analyse and pull together that mountain of data to ensure other officers are equipped with all the information they need.

The information he handles can prove key to cracking cases ranging from car thefts and drug dealing to human trafficking and missing people.

Just last night, he explains, officers were called by hotel staff who became suspicious when a man tried to check in with a girl. The man tried to get away by car but police managed to track him down, detain him and make sure the girl was safe.

With police numbers having fallen, Tim says the public's role as the eyes and ears of the force is more crucial than ever.

"When I started in road policing 24 years ago, we had 30 or 40 PCs going out on each shift across the force but now that's down to about seven, and we have to be smarter about how we use our resources," he says.

"Before, it was about patrolling and catching criminals in the act. Now, it's about getting ahead of the game and using the intelligence we receive, so we need the public to help us even more."

Thieves will often 'lay up' stolen cars in quiet streets before they are sold or used in other crimes, he explains, but the people living there will notice and he wants more of them to report such suspicious behaviour, or pass on information about drink-driving or disqualified drivers flouting their ban, to help police.

He says members of the public often 'don't want to get involved' but all they need to do is pass on the information - whether that's by calling 101, using the force's online reporting system or even sending a message via email, Facebook or Twitter - and police will investigate.

Each day, Tim uses the intelligence he's gathered to compile a briefing for officers heading out on patrol.

It's a handy guide to the criminals operating locally, with a photo of each suspect, details like their age, known addresses and even nicknames, and information about what they've been up to and what vehicles they're known to have used.

In a typical week, his work will help recover cars worth many tens of thousands of pounds and lead to more than a dozen arrests, often following high-speed pursuits.

He also analyses trends, and when there was a spate of ATM thefts last year in which explosives were used to blow the cash machines loose he realised South Yorkshire Police needed to team up with other forces to tackle the gangs responsible.

"The organised criminals were really getting the upper hand, and they were operating over a very wide area, so we decided to work with other road policing units and pool our assets," he said.

"All of a sudden, we were getting significant arrests and recovering vehicles and equipment used in the thefts."

Operation Fuego, as the collaboration is known, now involves forces from Northamptonshire to Humberside and has resulted in around 130 arrests, £2 million worth of drugs being seized and £1.2m worth of cars and £800,000 of other stolen property being recovered.

The number of successful cash machine thefts, meanwhile, has dropped from an average of 10 a month in spring last year to none during the last three months in South Yorkshire.

The latest mission is to stop HGV thefts in which criminals pull alongside lorries parked up in service stations or lay-bys and empty the contents while drivers are sleeping - in one case even gassing their victim.

Some of the crooks operating on our roads believe they can they can stay under the radar by cloning number plates, explains Tim, with more than a dozen law-abiding drivers a week in South Yorkshire learning their number plates have been illegally copied.

With a set of cloned plates costing as little as £13 to order online and have delivered within 24 hours, and some organised gangs having their own plate-printing machines, it's little surprise this is such a popular tactic.

"It's amazing how many people will clone plates just to avoid paying for an MOT or insurance," says Tim.

"They think they can get away with it but we have a very high detection rate for cloned plates in South Yorkshire so it's just a matter of time before we find them."

The 48-year-old father-of-one joined the force aged 21 and moved into road policing after a few years as a beat officer, before taking up his current role around four years ago.

While much of his time is spent behind the desk, he heads out most days to verify the information he receives, which often involves checking a car matches the description given and remains at the reported location.

His expertise as a pursuit driver is often called upon, too. He trains other officers in what is known as Tactical Pursuit And Containment (TPAC), which is the art of chasing down motorists who fail to stop and safely bringing their vehicles to a halt, and he acts as an advisor to ensure the risks are minimised.

The aim is always to avoid the need for a pursuit where possible, he explains, or if not to make sure members of the public, the officers and those they are chasing are never put at unnecessary risk.

Thankfully, there was no need for a chase this morning, but the remarkable reaction of one criminal to being stopped demonstrates the dangers police face keeping our roads safe.

"We ended a pursuit with one of our cars being damaged quite badly bringing the vehicle to a halt," says Tim.

"The driver said very matter-of-factly 'it's your job to catch me and my job to get away, and if that means damaging your car, I will do'.

"When you get someone with that mentality they don't care what mayhem they cause trying to get away and continue their criminal lifestyle."