Is Opal an All-Seeing Eye When It Comes to Tackling Organised Crime?
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens. Crime and crime fighting, and the names associated with the offence or the teams trying to bring the perpetrators to justice are freighted with meaning to the point that they colour the Police and public perception of their very nature. Take shoplifting, for example. There is no such offence as shoplifting—it is shop theft—but the name, believed to be derived from 18th-century opportunistic thieves lifting the sash windows of shops to steal displayed items, has stuck, as has the quaint perception that it is somehow not a serious crime. Overall, it is widely viewed as everything from teenagers stealing as a rite of passage to confused elderly people forgetting to pay.
COVID-19 has slightly changed the perception of shop theft with the increased threats of violence and aggression, which were already dramatically increasing before the pandemic. Shop thefts took on a new currency when spitting and coughing became linked to anti-social behaviour and made headlines. Meanwhile, store colleagues were also having to manage social distancing protocols as part of their day jobs. But it still fails to be a priority for the UK’s forty-three cash-strapped Police forces, and this has further been compounded by lawmakers in Westminster deciding not to follow the Scottish Government in introducing a new statutory offence of violence against shopworkers. Yet, the Co-op, which in the first quarter of 2021 recorded more than 400 incidents of weapons being used against colleagues, was among many retailers reporting such crimes.
However, placing the word “organised” in front of the words “shop theft” gives the offence prestige. Individual instances of shoplifting or shop theft remain minor opportunistic offences, if and when they are ever processed through the courts. However, when there is evidence of organised and systematic shop theft on an industrial scale across Police force boundaries often involving sophisticated scams, distraction, or high levels of violence and aggression, the offence is suddenly elevated in status.
The National Police Team
It is this serious and organised acquisitive crime that is the remit of Opal, a national Police team that is something of a hidden gem or “diamond in the rough” when it comes to collaborative working.
Going back to our opening question of what is in a name, one would have thought Opal was a symbol with mystical meaning. For example, the opal’s significance as a semi-precious stone was its historical link to eyes. In ancient times, many wore the stone because it was considered to be beneficial to vision, and some even believed it could render the wearer invisible. Supposedly, carrying an opal wrapped in a fresh bay leaf would keep others from seeing you. This superstition earned the opal the popular designation of patronus furum, which is Latin for “patron of thieves,” quite the opposite meaning for the modern Police team that now bears its name.
In the 21st century, Opal is not even an acronym, according to Neil Austin, the national project lead for Opal. However, its contribution to UK policing has already developed positive talismanic qualities in terms of results achieved.
“We have great oversight and work nationally and even internationally based upon intelligence,” said Neil, a man more driven by facts than folklore.
By definition, Opal is a national intelligence unit focused on serious organised acquisitive crime (SOAC), where there is a series of offences impacting two or more Police force areas, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“Although shoplifting is seen as a low-level impact crime, where we can get evidence of a gang hitting stores across the UK, we can help put together a case that deals with the full level of offending,” explained Neil.
Opal was established on April 1, 2019, and, although directed day-to-day by Neil, falls under the leadership of Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) Amanda Blakeman, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for acquisitive crime. So far, the unit has twelve intelligence staff, including analysts and researchers. The staff work alongside Police officers who liaise with law enforcement officers, partners, and industry, both nationally and internationally, to establish contacts, link investigations where common methods or suspects are identified, and to establish and share good practice.
Strong contacts are also forged between Opal and the UK’s nine dedicated ROCUs (Regional Organised Crime Units) whose main role is to investigate and disrupt organised crime groups operating across Police force boundaries. Some ROCUs provide support to investigations into other types of crime such as homicide and kidnap, but they also act as an important point of connection between Police forces and the National Crime Agency (NCA) as part of a more joined-up policing model across the country.
This best practice approach is directed at discovering and developing intelligence to support the disruption of organised crime groups that are a priority, due to their assessed levels of threat, economic and social impact, and financial or material gain. This in turn will improve the UK’s knowledge and response to cross-border criminality in relation to SOAC.
“The team is identifying and assessing current knowledge, establishing activity across the country, debriefing successful law enforcement and partner activity, and then connecting the issues and activity to create the big picture. This allows us to respond effectively and truly problem solve. We are also undertaking research across the wider SOAC remit to develop our knowledge and our network of stakeholders,” said Amanda.
“We work with the NCA's in developing the National Strategic Threat Assessment Strategy to ensure that our work adds value to activity, informs the identification of future threats, and identifies gaps where we can add value to the delivery of the strategy.
“The team is continuously assessing the scale and trends within acquisitive crime and aims to work with stakeholders to establish problem-solving responses to the organised criminality that is impacting our communities. Acquisitive crime has a considerable impact on victims, and the team will focuses on these high-volume, tangible crimes to reduce the direct harm to the public,” she said.
Catalytic Converter Thefts
Opal has been instrumental in the investigations of widespread theft involving catalytic converters on specific vehicles, including Toyotas. Retailers have been impacted by the thefts from their own delivery vehicles, and thieves have stolen them from customers while they were in store car parks.
Data obtained by Which? shows that between 2019 and 2020 alone, incidents of catalytic converter theft in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales (Police Scotland refused the request) rose a staggering 104 per cent on average and continued to rise despite the various national lockdowns in 2020, when the majority of people and their cars were at home.
For thousands of motorists up and down the country, this decades-old emissions-control device has been the cause of significant repair bills and even complete write-offs, as the new crime wave swept the UK amid a combination of factors, including surging global demand for vehicles and a slump in mining during the pandemic. These factors have combined to create a ready black market for stolen catalytic converters as a result of the exponentially rising price of the precious metals contained within them.
At the time of the Which? investigation, an ounce of rhodium cost more than a new Honda Jazz, a factor that hadn’t escaped the attention of criminals behind this global theft ring. With a single scrap catalytic converter currently worth around £400, organised gangs continue to target dozens of cars each day with older Toyota and Honda models particularly at risk, aided and abetted by advertisements offering cash for scrap converters on Facebook Marketplace, despite the fact that posting such ads was made an offence under the 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act.
Theft of catalytic converters was one of the factors that made vehicle crime involving this specific modus operandi (MO) a strategic priority for Opal.
“Policing has dramatically changed over the last few years. It now increasingly recognises the more complex nature of crime and the inter-dependency of specific offences,” said Neil, who has twenty-nine years of Police experience behind him.
Burglary and Robbery Crime
“One of our other strategic priorities is burglary and robbery, particularly ATM crime across the country, which is highly organised,” he added. “Here, you see the inter-dependency at play as we see vehicle or plant theft involved in these kinds of crimes. Someone will steal a JCB vehicle, for example, to rip an ATM out of a shop wall, which is a very common MO.”
To this end, the newly established Agricultural and Construction Equipment (ACE) specialist Police unit was launched in April under the auspices of Opal to liaise with Police forces nationwide as well as key partners and collaborating trade associations. The key message behind the launch was that across-industry co-operation is crucial for the success of the new unit.
The unit will focus on the offences committed by organised crime groups that are part of a series and involve cross-border offending. By developing proactive working relationships with law enforcement and partner and business agencies, the ACE unit will work to reduce the theft of plant and agricultural equipment and maximise the recovery of equipment, both nationally and internationally.
Officers from ACE will work to develop, collate, and co-ordinate intelligence from various sources to identify and disrupt organised criminality and target those involved in these thefts as well as identify current and emerging crime trends and threats.
The reason ACE was established on the back of Opal is because the unit already has a foothold nationally, and intelligence can be shared between forces. The ACE national intelligence hub team will work closely with the industry, developing positive working relationships to support and promote schemes such as CESAR—the official construction and agricultural equipment security and registration scheme—to prevent theft and maximise the recovery of stolen equipment.
Prior to COVID-19, Opal was actively engaged with other agencies, including immigration and UK Border Force, around the growth in so-called burglary tourism involving criminals coming to the UK from South America to attack larger properties in and around major cities, a crime spree that was thwarted not just by the pandemic but from partnerships that resulted in arrests.
Beyond Business Crime
Opal’s remit is not exclusively business crime, although serious and organised acquisitive crime usually targets the richer pickings provided by UK corporations. For example, other strategic objectives include UK infrastructure crime, and heritage and cultural crime, where everything from stealing national treasures to stripping lead off ancient church roofs is the work of organised gangs.
Opal also provides a key touch point for other high-profile crimes where the perception of greater wrongdoing was highlighted in the media. At the height of the pandemic, for example, Opal was consulted on the rise in animal thefts in and around major cities including Manchester, where they determined that such occurrences were “uncommon.”
Opal provided valuable insight and reported that “the profile of dog theft has been significantly raised via various platforms including news outlets and social media.
“A survey found that 94 per cent of respondents had seen reports of dog theft on social media but only 0.34 per cent had a dog stolen over the past twelve months.”
However, in February, DCC Amanda Blakeman said that whilst dog theft “is still a very rare crime, it’s sadly something we have seen increasing recently.”
She added, “The recent conclusions of a national pet theft task force that I chaired will help forces more accurately record pet theft to help get an accurate picture, and Opal is key to understanding the organised criminal behaviour that we see in this area.”
Working with Limited Resources
Like other Police agencies, Opal is limited by resourcing challenges. A national brief requires greater intelligence and a wider remit. Smarter working plays a role as do the strategic priorities discussed, all of which have ironically been informed by policing acronyms.
For example, MoRiLE, which stands for the Management of Risk in Law Enforcement, is an intelligence programme that creates prioritisation and business intelligence tools for organised crime fighting.
Delivered by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, MoRiLE is a UK-wide project that is developing a suite of risk prioritisation models and processes that all law enforcement agencies can use to better understand their risks in the same way that THRIVE (Threat, Harm, Risk, Investigation, Vulnerability, and Engagement) is informing the priorities of business, law enforcement, and officer deployment.
Opal’s funding comes from all the UK’s forty-three Police forces with secured future funding. Opal covers a wide range of crime areas; therefore, working in partnership with other commercial or public agencies can improve their capability and capacity.
For example, Historic England funds a researcher for heritage and cultural property crime. More recently, the ACE team has been funded jointly with donations from the Construction Equipment Association (CEA) and a group of insurance companies with a specific interest in the construction plant and agricultural sectors.
This funding, which provides dedicated resources to focus on a crime type, has had a positive impact by providing co-ordination, sharing good practice, and developing intelligence with law enforcement partners and business agencies.
Opal’s effectiveness has traditionally largely come from business investment. In 2019, funding from the telecoms industry helped to identify organised “steaming” gangs targeting mobile phone stores and literally pulling smartphones from display cabinets.
While Opal’s funding is driven by policing, Neil is aware that the best use of resources is working together across force boundaries and together with industry partners rather than duplicating effort. He suggested that a good example would be attacks on delivery vehicles. The supply chain has suffered significant losses as a result of organised gangs and the pandemic with more consumers ordering online, which makes for rich pickings for criminals.
“There are definitely incidents of organised criminality at work here, especially when you look at crimes such as the Romanian Rollovers where gangs are using high-risk tactics to steal from moving vehicles,” Neil explained.
“When you look at COVID-19 and the increase in thefts from courier vehicles, you have to be able to distinguish local opportunistic theft from that which is globally organised.”
Opal’s brief includes the international deployment of intelligence with representation in different jurisdictions. To date, there are Opal officers working with counterparts in Romania, France, Lithuania, and Ireland, territories where there is evidence of organised criminality. “It’s all about sharing good practice and helping to restore confidence across retail and wider business,” Neil said.
This wider collaboration and co-operation has paid a number of dividends, not least in a high-profile case from the East Midlands in 2020 when a picture found during a raid on a house in Romania was linked to a burglary gang operating in the UK.
Derbyshire Police launched an appeal to find the owners of the photograph which was discovered by police in Vaslui, Romania, along with jewellery, silverware, and watches. After a personal handwritten note was shared, the victim came forward.
During the investigation, various inter national appeals went out. Detective Sergea nt Stuart Kershaw, from Derbyshire Police’s international liaison office, said officers believed the items “originate from the UK.”
At the time, Detective Sergeant Tom Grundey, from the Opal serious organised crime team, said, “Often items stolen during burglaries are worth more in memories than in their monetary value, and I am sure this is the case with these items. Our hope is that, with the public’s help, we can find the owners of these items and begin to understand where other victims may be located.”
The suspected Romanian burglary gang was thought to have been active in the UK, especially in the Midlands and other parts of western Europe.
In this wider role, Opal is a hidden gem in the UK policing’s arsenal, providing vital links and intelligence across the country. In terms of its effectiveness, it is more than a semi-precious asset when it comes to the essential intelligence legwork required across Police force boundaries and international borders, chasing down leads and helping to solve mysteries as well as providing a narrative and sound commercial rationale behind the trends in organised criminality.
Plugged in as it is to the wider strategic UK policing model, when we ask, “What’s in a name?,” the mystical and the mythological explanations of Opal and its links to vision fit the unit’s operational mandate perfectly, albeit unintentionally. Since its inception less than three years ago, it is yet to lose its original lustre and ability to get results. It is a jewel in the crown of organised crime fighting and an important intelligence prism through which illuminating light can be refracted for the greater good.