TEAMWORK: Det Sgt Craig McWhinnie
THE Plymouth priority prolific offender (PPO) team can boast a 66 per cent reduction in the number of crimes committed by its offenders over the past two years.
The team, led by Det Sgt Craig McWhinnie, includes police officers, probation staff, drug outreach workers and housing officers, who all sit side-by-side in an office based within the Harbour Centre in Mutley.
The physical location of the team – they sit around one table – is central to their success, claims Det Sgt McWhinnie.
"I don't have to spend two weeks arranging a meeting with housing, or probation, or drugs workers. It's all done over the table. If I need to get a drug worker's perspective, they're down the hall. All the expertise is in one place."
The national scheme, now four years old, linked organisations who each had a hand in helping tackle those offenders who, often because of drug habits and a chaotic 'sofa-surfing' lifestyle, were causing the most crime.
Two years ago in Plymouth senior members of each organisation agreed the most sensible move was to bring the key people together. Basing them at Harbour had two additional positives: it was considered "neutral ground" by each agency and it was physically close to where most of their clients were being treated for their drug addiction, which in turn fuelled their offending.
Det Sgt McWhinnie said: "Because it's here, we can focus on the main issue, which is the dependency on drugs. We're linked in with much of the third sector here who also deal with it – Hamoaze House, Prince's Trust and Ahimsa."
He cites three main ways of tackling prolific offenders. Firstly, 'prevent and deter' – work carried out by groups such as the Youth Offending Team.
The work carried out by the PPO team covers the next two strategies: 'resettlement and rehabilitation', and 'catch and convict'.
Det Sgt McWhinnie describes them succinctly as the 'carrot and stick' approach.
He said: "They come to us when they're at the most chaotic part of their lives and we focus everything in one direction.
"We give them a chance to stabilise and get them help. If they choose not to co-operate with us – and we know quite quickly if they're going to go off the rails – we can bring it to the attention of the police, be it neighbourhood teams or patrol, who will take action."
Only 60 offenders make it onto the PPO list at any time by reaching a certain set of criteria. They are scored on a range of factors, including how many crimes they have committed, what kind, their impact on the community, their accommodation status, the harm they are causing, and whether intervention will work.
Det Sgt McWhinnie said: "We have to have this selection criteria which is agreed on a multi-agency basis, otherwise we would have hundreds of PPOs. The majority of crime is committed by the minority of people. And of those people, it is the minority of them who commit that core crime. They are the people we want to really dig into. That's where we see the most acquisitive crime."
By keeping the figure realistic, the team can better target each offender, matching their actions to what will work best with that person.
Det Sgt McWhinniesaid: "We learn from each other and that's what's unique. The problem solving is better – everybody has different views in dealing with an offender, which makes it a more balanced approach."
One of the key approaches is to focus on the individual rather than their offending. The police, probation, drugs officers and housing will all turn up on the offenders' front door. In Bristol, the PPO team includes prison officers, which Det Sgt McWhinnie says helps focus an offender's mind.
He said: "If you get a prison officer you recognise turn up at your front door, telling you to stay in line or you'll be seeing a lot more of them, it does seem to have a positive effect."
All PPOs receive what is called a "premium service". If they are suspected of committing crimes, they will be arrested the same day, brought in and questioned. They will be refused bail and the CPS will be urged to charge them.
Det Sgt McWhinnie said: "They stand far more of a chance of being convicted than anybody else – we point this out to the offender. Out of 17 PPOs brought in this month, 14 were charged."
Because of the joined-up approach, the team know exactly what's going on with each PPO, he added.
The Criminal Justice Joint Inspection team – made up of members of the police, probation, prison service, court and Crown Prosecution Service – reviewed the work of the Plymouth PPO team last year. The team received such a sterling report that now forces across the UK have visited Plymouth to replicate their model.
The team have also been nominated for the Home Office's Tackling Drugs – Changing Lives award.
Future plans include bringing in social workers, as the team aim to use every bit of leverage they can to get the offenders to quit crime.
Det Sgt McWhinnie said: "It's still heavily in the hands of the individual, but the team are more aware of good opportunities to effect life changes."