A criminal mast£r plan
Thanks to two Great Yarmouth masons thirty years ago, an anonymous informant scheme travelled from the US to Norfolk before going nationwide. Robert Price charts the rise of Crimestoppers
According to the parliamentary official record, Hansard, a debate took place in the House of Commons on 18 June 2008, when it was acknowledged that Crimestoppers was begun in ‘the sleepy backwater of a Norfolk seaside town’.
It was in the east coast resort of Great Yarmouth that the nationally acclaimed and successful crime-busting Crimestoppers scheme was born thirty years ago thanks to a proactive police officer and community-spirited shop manager. Norfolk masons Jim Carter and Mike Cole were both involved from the outset and as a result of their enthusiasm and commitment, the scheme has gone on to be a national and indeed international weapon to combat crime.
Detective Inspector (as he was in 1983) Michael Cole was part of a delegation of Norfolk policemen who had travelled to Illinois in the US to spend time exchanging ideas with police forces in the Chicago area. As expected, the forces carried out similar work, and learning about mobile patrols, carrying firearms and community policing was a natural progression. However, Mike discovered something interesting that was having a beneficial effect within local communities outside the metropolis of Chicago.
While in a small town called Peoria, Mike was chatting with his US colleagues in the police headquarters and a phone kept ringing, answered by an officer who seemed dedicated to that task.
Mike was told that the local force offered money for information leading to the capture and arrest of local criminals. The scheme was proving successful, giving complete anonymity to the informer.
Returning to Great Yarmouth, Mike submitted a report recommending the idea and was duly given permission to introduce it in Great Yarmouth. The Norfolk Constabulary provided an officer, an office and dedicated hotline from nine to five, with an answer phone for out of hours calls, at the Great Yarmouth Police Station. Publicity was provided by the Great Yarmouth Mercury newspaper, which explained the scheme and assured callers that they would never be asked for their names; they would be identified by a code and given a password known only to them and the officer. If the information led to a charge, but not necessarily a conviction, there would be a cash reward paid discreetly by a third party.
The funding to pay for information could have proved a stumbling block. However, when Jim Carter, at the time the manager of the local Woolworths, found out that funding was required, he acted quickly, contacting his commercial and business colleagues in the town. Soon, a fund of money was raised to pay the rewards; local businesses and individuals donated thousands of pounds to help finance the project.
The scheme took off very quickly and as Mike explains, ‘there is no honour amongst thieves where money is concerned’. Arrangements were made with the informant to meet at a location in the town and the money handed over after the codes and password were given. As a result of the scheme, crime started to drop, especially when a prolific offender was taken off the streets. On one occasion, Jim was the go-between and recalls handing money over to an informant who turned out to be a lady apprehended in the store for shoplifting the week before. She remarked to Jim, ‘Oh, it’s you Mr Carter, thank you so much for being so polite last week.’
‘an informant once turned out to be a lady apprehended for shoplifting. She Remarked to Jim, “Oh, it’s you Mr Carter, thank you for being so polite last week” ’
As the Crimestoppers scheme gained momentum, so the media both at regional and national levels picked up the story. TV coverage on Thames Television and Anglia Television meant the project went national in 1988, with more than five thousand calls made to the hotline in its first year. Both Mike and Jim addressed seminars and gave lectures on the project as it expanded nationally.
The latest figures available for the period April 2011 to the end of March 2012 show that twenty-two people are arrested every day, someone is charged with murder every seven days, £7.72 million worth of stolen goods have been recovered, and £22.34 million worth of illegal drugs have been seized. All of these have come about as a result of ninety-five thousand, two hundred and seventy-six pieces of useful information about crime.
This June, Michael and Jim will be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the scheme’s introduction to Great Yarmouth, as will other local supporters of the Crimestoppers initiative. Both readily admit the scheme could not have succeeded without help from other police officers, local personalities, local media and the people of Great Yarmouth. A project born in a sleepy backwater in Norfolk by a couple of Freemasons has grown to maturity and is certainly punching its weight across the nation.
In 2009, Crimestoppers released a set of marketing materials to communicate its service as an alternative route for passing on information about crime and its anonymity. Research showed that among the public there was not a clear understanding about what anonymity actually meant, so the materials had to explain it for a potential user of the 0800 555 111 hotline. The resulting campaign featured three masked superheroes – Zorro, Batman and Robin – with the simple tag line, ‘Fight crime without revealing your identity.’