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What Will It Take to Combat Heritage Crime?

By Inspector Gary Jones, British Transport Police

As a police officer with  30 years' experience working across broad areas of  policing I had rarely heard of 'heritage crime'. I was introduced to the topic when I became the staff officer to Paul Crowther, the Chief Constable of British Transport Police.

Heritage crime was one of the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) business areas which the Chief Constable was responsible for at the time. It sounded interesting and out of the ordinary and I embarked upon a very steep learning curve. Within about a month of starting my role, I would  be required to present a new strategic threat assessment about heritage and cultural property crime.

As one does in such circumstances, I looked for a definition of 'heritage crime' and I found that one had been prepared by colleagues at Historic England:

Any offence which harms the value of England’s heritage assets and their settings to this and future generations.

It sounded exotic but what really struck me was that this type of crime happens in the present but has real resonance for our future and our past. Unlike other areas of acquisitive crime, some of the items which are stolen or damaged are simply irreplaceable and arguably priceless. A car or money can be replaced if they are stolen. Yet, this type of crime has received limited media coverage and I had hardly heard of it.

Stained glass windows in Withcote Chapel
Window stolen from 16th century Withcote Chapel, Leicestershire in August 2016

Working on the national rail network I had some experience of investigating metal theft and there is a lot of synergy between these two types of crime. If a piece of cable is stolen from a railway line or a power station it can have small amount of monetary value, however, the societal and economic damage can be substantial.

When metal theft became an emerging threat in 2012, it was fuelled by burgeoning international metal prices. A key component in shaping a response to the problem was to educate the judiciary and criminal justice partners about the scale and extent of the damage that this type of crime can cause. Creating a media campaign which informed the public, including the criminal fraternity, about the seriousness of this type of crime was also important. Ultimately, legislation was changed and under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 cash transactions for scrap became unlawful. These measures taken together really quelled this type of crime.

In February 2018, thieves who were targeting scrap metal stole hundreds of ancient beads and coins from an archaeological warehouse in Canterbury. At the other end of the spectrum, in 2017 police in Wales carried out a controlled explosion when they found a number of torpedoes from a Second World War submarine that had been sunk in the Irish Sea. Also in 2017, an off duty police officer from Norfolk was sentenced to a custodial sentence for stealing a hoard of Anglo Saxon gold coins. There are reports of terrorist groups such as ISIS using heritage crime to 'culturally cleanse' areas and, in some cases, monetising the spoils to fund terrorism. This is a complex international and deeply culturally rooted type of crime. It's being committed on both sporadic and highly organised levels. 

Woodhenge information plaque before it was stolen by metal thieves
Woodhenge information plaque before it was stolen by metal thieves © Historic England

Combatting heritage crime will take an eclectic coalition of partners, including the communities of people who really value our heritage. It will take organisation and sheer will. It's heartening that prosecuting authorities now accept 'heritage crime' as an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing. As law enforcement agencies face ever-increasing demands, the heritage community will need a loud voice to compete for resources. But what is more important than protecting our past and preserving it for the future?

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