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TVP's hotspot app: dealing with habitual knife crime

Thames Valley is one of the force areas that has a funded Violence Reduction Unit and has received GRIP funding from the Home Office.

Thames Valley Police’s Operation Rasure was established in early 2021 to deal with habitual knife carriers, serious violence and homicide. 

A crime hotspot app was developed which is now listed on the Police Digital Service Solutions catalogue and has recently been put in the College of Policing's ‘Practice Bank’.

Data and targeting lead for Op Rasure, Owen Miller, explained: “We wanted to produce something that would give sergeants, inspectors and those people out in our local policing areas enough information to plan good operations without having to have loads of work done by an analyst.

“I wouldn’t ever want to replace analysts but there is definitely things we can do to make life easier for them.”

In 2020, the shift from SURGE to GRIP funding meant there was also a shift from local level operations that were shorter in duration to something different that could tackle persistent hotspots.

Mr Miller said: “To run such an operation at force level, you either need to have a dedicated group of people who you can instruct or you need a really good command and control mechanism with a much wider group of officers.”

The force's development of a hotspot app has allowed officers to find hotspots to patrol on their phone as opposed to needing to attend briefings. It also meants that rather that returning to the stations to write updates following a patrol, they can do so on their phones.

The app updates in live time with the number of patrols that have taken place. Once a set upper limit of patrols per hotspot has been met that hotspot is then removed from the app to ensure hotspots are covered equally. 

Data on when officers arrive and leave a hotspot is recorded on the app and they have the option of adding relevant notes which aren’t suitable to be submitted as intelligence or recorded crime.

During the first year of the app, the force ran a randomised control trial [RCT] involving their joint operations unit officers -  including dogs unit, roads policing and firearms.

The RCT finished in March 2022 and within that time period officers recorded 3,500 additional patrols within serious violence hotspot areas over and above the number normally completed.

Correspondingly, the number police Airwave radios detected in serious violence hotspots increased by 93%.

Matthew Barber, PCC for the Thames Valley on the left, with an officer from the Joint Operations Unit 

“Whilst we saw a reduction in crime - it was about 8.5% in violent crime, it wasn't a significant finding,” Mr Miller explained.

It led to the force reviewing their hotspot areas. They had initially been selected as hexagon-shaped areas with the most crimes that were still patrolable within 15 minutes.

Thames Valley does not have the quantity of violent crimes experienced in urban areas in the UK and US where hotspot policing was originally pioneered. In TVP hotspots, there is on average one crime every five days – meaning officers would have to be present for long periods of time in order for their patrolling to have a statistically significant impact on reducing crime.

Version two of the hotspot app launched in September 2022 went out to every operational officer and staff member in the force.

The hotspot model had also been altered – instead of hexagons, the force focussed on slightly bigger areas but ones where the chance for police visibility was greater, i.e. a focus on the busiest thoroughfares as opposed to areas with lots of intertwining roads.

Since September 2022, over 20,400 patrols had been recorded through the app amounting to 7,200 hours of patrolling in the hotspots.

“Hotspot policing is [essentially] a visible deterrent,” Mr Miller said.

“People see a police officer walking up and down the street and they potentially change the way they’re going to behave.

“It’s a lot more complicated than that but in a basic form that’s how it works.”

Currently 0.13% of TVP’s force area is covered by one of the serious violence hotspots which have been designed using around six years’ worth of crime data.

Over that period, the hotspots have remained relatively stable and the force is expecting them to last at least until the end of this current RCT covering another year.

Mr Miller said: “I think one of our biggest bits of learning was around the fact that officers and staff spend a lot of time working quite independently and using their judgement. 

“A lot of that time we don’t capture information about what they have done and it makes it very difficult for us as an organisation to recognise some of that good work.

“It was one of the things that came up as feedback from the first randomised control trial and is equally popular now - the app does allow supervisors to see a bit more about what their teams are up to.”

Mr Miller adds the app is not intended to be used to keep tabs on officers but it has meant that at a local level it’s easier for officers to be praised for the work they are doing

“[Previously] we would go where the last crime was, where we knew there'd been a fight, where we thought something had happened a week before," tactical commander for Op Rasure, Chief Inspector Jade Hewitt said. 

“This is evidence-based policing.

“We're not just sending police officers to an area because we think it might be somewhere where violence is happening. We know violence is happening, we know at what time.”

A recent piece of feedback has been passed to the team from an officer who had just moved over to neighbourhoods. 

He used the app to go to one of his hotspots and while there witnessed two males attempting to evade him. Part of the work done by the team has been encouraging officers to patrol on foot and not in their vehicle. Because this oficer was on foot he was able to spot the suspects and pursue them. He detained both for a search and found a knife. The knife carrying male was arrested and it transpired in custody that he was on bail for two knife point robberies in an adjacent hotspot.

The officer said that without the app he probably wouldn’t have been in that location and even if he had - he would have been in a vehicle and therefore wouldn’t have noticed them.

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