The Independent Police Complaints Commission has said there are serious inconsistencies that are significantly impacting on the effectiveness of the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems nationally.
ANPR spotted Chapman 16 times
The finding comes following an investigation into how Cleveland Police, Durham Constabulary and North Yorkshire Police responded to intelligence from ANPR about the movements of Peter Chapman. Chapman, 33, murdered 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall on 25 October 2009.
Chapman had befriended Miss Hall over the Facebook social networking site, pretending to be 19-years-old. Miss Hall left her home in Darlington at 7.10pm on October 25, telling her mother that she would be staying at her friend's house. She was murdered by Chapman that night.
The IPCC investigation determined that on October 23, 2009, Merseyside Police put information on the Police National Computer stating that Chapman was wanted for arson, breach of the sex offenders register and theft. The information was that he was driving a blue Ford Mondeo car. The report was given a medium priority.
Between October 23 and 26, 2009 static ANPR cameras in the Cleveland Police, Durham Constabulary and North Yorkshire Police areas picked up Chapman's car on a total of 16 occasions. The last occasion at 5.07pm on 26 October resulted in Chapman's arrest by Cleveland Police.
Chapman subsequently confessed to Miss Hall's murder and led the police to her body. He pleaded guilty to murder at Teesside Crown Court on 8 March 2010 and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The details of the hits on Chapman's car are:
October 23: 2 hits in Cleveland Police force area at 9.30pm and 9.46pm
October 24: 3 hits in Cleveland Police force area at 6.42pm, 7.30pm and 7.42pm
October 25: 4 hits in Cleveland Police force area at 10.26am, 11.31am, 11.59am and 11.58pm
2 hits in Durham Constabulary force area at 7.48pm and 8.25pm
October 26: 2 hits in North Yorkshire Police force area at 12.18am and 12.49am
3 hits in Cleveland Police force area at 1.38pm, 2.02pm and 5.07pm
The investigation determined that the systems for monitoring ANPR hits differed greatly between the three police forces.
In the North Yorkshire Police area there were a total of 14,413 hits between October 23-26. Two of these hits related to Chapman's car. However North Yorkshire Police knew nothing of the hits at the time because the force did not monitor its ANPR system 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The systems were only monitored in relation to specific operations.
In the Cleveland Police area there are around 2,650 hits per day. There were 12 hits on seven different cameras relating to Chapman's car. Cleveland Police does monitor its ANPR systems 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The system is either monitored by a dispatch operator for the dedicated ANPR intercept team or supervisors in the Force Control Room.
The two hits picked up by Cleveland Police cameras on October 23 were assessed by an Inspector in the Force Control Room. As a result of his assessment of the intelligence, the proximity of units and the demand on resources at that time, the officer decided not to dispatch officers.
The three hits on October 24 and the hits on October 25 at 10.26am, 11.31am and 11.59am did result in officers being dispatched or information circulated to units to watch out for Chapman's car. However none of the units saw Chapman's car.
The hit at 11.58pm on October 25 was not monitored. The hits at 1.38pm and 2.02pm resulted in officers being dispatched or information circulated to units within the Cleveland Police force area. Again Chapman's car was not found. The hit at 5.07pm resulted in Chapman's arrest.
In the Durham Constabulary area there are approximately 6,000 hits per day. Two hits were generated in relation to Chapman's car on October 25.
Durham Constabulary monitors its ANPR system via its Control Room staff. Area dispatchers have the responsibility for the monitoring of ANPR activations within their geographical area. The hit at 7.48pm was not spotted because the relevant staff were not logged onto the system.
The investigation team learned subsequently that there had been reliability issues with the system in Durham, ranging from instances of staff not being able to log in to total loss of the system.
The hit at 8.25pm was of Chapman's car leaving the Durham Constabulary area. Due to the configuration of Durham's ANPR monitoring system vehicles leaving the force area were not flagged up on the dispatchers' systems.
The investigation concluded that the quality of the information put into the Police National Computer varies greatly, with the system sometimes being used for minor issues. This in turn led to the possibility of an overload of information on the ANPR monitoring systems which could lead to high and medium priority matters being missed.
The IPCC said it is equally important that there is effective management of the monitoring of the databases and systems.
IPCC Commissioner Nicholas Long said: "This investigation has highlighted serious flaws in the operation of the ANPR system. It is clear that it can be a very valuable asset, but it is dependent on the system being managed and monitored well and containing accurate information.
"I am aware work is ongoing by the Association of Chief Police Officers and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in relation to the effectiveness of the ANPR system, but added importance is placed on this from our findings. There needs to be a full review about how the ANPR system is operated, including the development of consistent policies for the monitoring of the system across all forces, the prioritisation of information and the accurate input of data.
"There are many ‘what ifs' thrown up from our investigation. It is impossible to say with certainty that better use of the ANPR system could have prevented Ashleigh Hall's murder. But it is clear there were opportunities missed here. It took 16 hits on the ANPR system before Chapman was finally arrested. Tragically in that time he was able to enact his terrible plan to murder Ashleigh.
"My sympathies go out to her family again for their loss. I cannot begin to comprehend how terrible this loss has been for them. What I hope they can see from this report is that the issue here is around systemic failures, and not individual misconduct. The ANPR system is championed as a wonderful tool for police forces. However it has undoubtedly become a victim of its own success in that the amount of information contained in the system and the hits generated has made it virtually impossible to monitor adequately given police resources. A full review is required to ensure the system is fit for purpose.”
A joint Statement from Cleveland Police, Durham Constabulary and North Yorkshire Police said: “Our thoughts and sympathies remain with the family of Ashleigh Hall, and we hope that the findings of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation will help the family move forward.
“The management of the ANPR activations on Peter Chapman’s vehicle in October 2009 was referred to the IPCC on a voluntary basis by all three forces.
“Given the level of public interest in the case, and in the interests of openness and transparency, it was important to refer this matter so that an independent investigation could be carried out.
“Between 23rd and 26th October 2009, there were 12 activations in the Cleveland area; two in North Yorkshire and two in County Durham.
“In Cleveland action was taken in relation to 9 out of the 12 activations by either deploying a unit or circulating the vehicle for observations.
“It was as a result of these activations that Chapman was arrested, and his subsequent disclosure that he had committed a murder.
“The report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded that it was impossible to say whether the use of ANPR and PNC may have prevented the murder of Ashleigh Hall.
“It also concludes there is no evidence to suggest that any disciplinary offences have been committed by any police officer or member of staff.
“The report also acknowledges that it is not feasible to monitor and respond to every ANPR hit from all databases, because of the limitations on resources and budgets. Cleveland
“Cleveland welcomes the IPCC report and the findings. The Force has arrangements in place to monitor ANPR systems 24/7. Cleveland prioritises the number of databases it monitors and corresponding logs were created for the 9 hits the Force responded to. This is regarded as good practice.Durham
“As the IPCC notes in the report into Ashleigh’s murder, ANPR is a valuable intelligence tool which can never be used to its full operational potential because it is not feasible to respond to every hit from the databases (in Durham there are a large number of hits a day).
ANPR cameras are monitored from the communications centres in Durham City and Bishop Auckland. In addition, there is also a specialist team of officers who monitor the ANPR cameras throughout the force area.
“The unit is proving so effective in arresting suspects, recovering stolen property and gathering intelligence that it is now regarded by other forces as an example of good practice.North Yorkshire
“North Yorkshire Police fully acknowledges and agrees with the findings reached by the IPCC investigation.
“Of the three recommendations that are relevant to North Yorkshire Police, action is underway to ensure that a policy and appropriate monitoring and response is in place regarding the effective use of ANPR.ANPR
“The cameras in Cleveland, Durham and North Yorkshire “read” on average a total of 24 million vehicle number plates every month. Of those, 311,000 vehicles are flagged up as being of “potential interest” to police.
“ANPR cameras are a valuable intelligence gathering tool, capturing the position and time of a flagged vehicle as it passes a camera point.
“This helps police build up a wide raft of information on the movement of suspect cars and the range of their activities but only a proportion of this material is suitable for a live-time response. Indeed, not all forces monitor their cameras 24 hours a day.
“In the case of Cleveland, Durham and North Yorkshire, however to maximise these opportunities, they are checked continually but a response to an activation still has to be balanced against other priorities and resources available at the time.
“We welcome the findings and learning from the IPCC report, which has provided learning locally as well as raising issues around the ANPR system at a national level.”
The report comes on the same day the Government published its Protection of Freedom Bill that includes the introduction of a code of practice for CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems to be overseen by a new Surveillance Camera Commissioner, to make them more proportionate and effective.