In the UK, there are over one million burglaries and attempted burglaries every year, with Nottingham reported as having some of the highest rates in the country. Last term, there were nearly 50 instances of burglary in Lenton alone. Students who are victims of burglary often lose irreplaceable belongings, university coursework and the sense of security and privacy in their homes.
But the situation is improving. In January, it was reported that burglaries in the city had fallen by 36% – one of the biggest drops in the country. This success is in part owed to the controversial introduction of ‘capture houses’ in 2008. In February, the BBC broadcast Burglar in the House, a documentary, which focused on Lenton and revealed the use of these pioneering police tactics.
‘Capture houses’ are set up in burglary hot spots throughout the city and on University Park with the aim of attracting thieves. These trap rooms are fitted with decoy possessions such as laptops and TVs, and hidden cameras and alarms that notify the police of a break-in within minutes. The oblivious criminal is sprayed with SmartWater, a forensic liquid invisible to the naked eye, which will then later identify and link them to the specific crime. As Inspector John Woodward, local area commander for Clifton, puts it, “Capture houses look just like any other residential address. The difference is, they are set up by the police and are equipped with state of the art technology to help us identify criminals, gather evidence and put them before the courts”.
Since the scheme was implemented in 2008, thirty burglars have been caught, with the captured evidence leading to conviction. The initiative appears to be a success story, helping Nottingham’s neighbourhoods to become better protected through advances in technology. However, there are concerns over its use.
Some argue that the initiative is verging on entrapment and that these normal-looking front rooms are “‘too easy” to burgle, enticing and tempting opportunistic individuals who would not otherwise engage in the crime. Conversely, the BBC documentary demonstrated that it was predominantly re-offenders who were caught out by the trap; the police often recognised them from camera footage. Arguably, there is ample opportunity for easy crime in everyday life that people do not engage in. If people were to steal unattended coats at a bar, or laptops in Hallward, we would not dismiss the reprehensibility of the crime because it was “easy”. As with any other crime, the criminal has to make a calculated choice to commit the offence.
Another police documentary set in Nottingham, Coppers, recently revealed how the local police were regularly unable to convict criminals because they lacked hard evidence. The use of SmartWater in ‘capture houses’ is a significant step forwards in forensics, because it provides unequivocal proof of criminality. As such, the scheme serves to reduce the number of false convictions.
A growing awareness of the initiative amongst criminals will hopefully lead to a decrease in the number of attempted burglaries. Signs declaring the use of SmartWater in the area and knowledge of the police tactic will not undermine the scheme but will instead have a positive effect, challenging criminals to question the option of robbery before they commit it. If potential burglars think that the risk of capture and detection is too great, the likelihood that the property will be broken into will be significantly reduced. This will eventually be the real value of the already-successful capture houses: making Nottingham a more secure area for students and residents alike. Nevertheless, a few criminals will inevitably continue to ignore the warnings. On February 2nd, the day after Burglar in the House was broadcast, a man was caught burgling a capture house in St Anne’s. D.S. Craig Luckett commented: “Obviously Clarke didn’t heed the warning in the BBC documentary that we are using capture houses to catch burglars in the act. Either that, or he was simply pushing his luck.”