Police defend 'secret police' rural crime scheme

Police say it is important to keep the identities of rural informants secret.Police say it is important to keep the identities of rural informants secret.
Police say it is important to keep the identities of rural informants secret.
The identities of volunteers involved in a scheme to prevent rural crime are not publicised to avoid revenge attacks by gangs, police have insisted, following comparisons to Eastern European 'secret police' tactics.

About 30 people in the Northumbria Police force area are now signed up to Operation Checkpoint, and feed officers tips on suspicious activity and other concerns.

But there are worries about its secretive nature and comparisons have been made with the secret police states of the former Eastern Bloc.

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“I know of an individual who purports to have some sort of links to the police and I feel it’s undermining community spirit with people grassing on people and it just feels uneasy,” said Andrew Shepherd, an independent member of the Northumbria Police and Crime Panel.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe and I’ve seen the consequences of the secret police type of approach.

“[But also] I absolutely understand the aim and I can see the logic of doing that.”

Figures suggest Northumbria Police is among the UK forces least affected by rural crime.

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Between 2019/20 and 2020/21 the area saw a steep fall in the number of reported offences, such as quad bike theft, although this was largely attributed to the impact of the pandemic.

But bosses have also pointed to crime prevention efforts by initiatives such as FarmWatch and Operation Checkpoint.

Checkpoint volunteers are issued radios and even patrol with officers in a role which has been compared to that of special constables, but without the legal powers.

They are then expected to feed back information which may be helpful to police teams, such as shortcuts, details of suspicious vehicles or information on offences such as hare coursing.

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And while Kim McGuinness, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Northumbria, accepted concerns over ‘transparency’, she also pointed to the need for intelligence to tackle groups travelling to Northumberland from Cumbria, County Durham or further afield.

She said: “The scheme itself is publicised in rural areas and in the rural policing networks, but we wouldn’t necessarily want to publicise who the volunteers are because they are an ‘eyes and ears’ role.

“They’re often really quite involved in quite serious criminality and so I think it’s fair that a lot of volunteers prefer not to have their identity publicised.”