Last year, ATF Professional spoke to Chief Superintendent Chris Todd about the launch of ‘Operation Chop Shop’ (see previous article Working Together is Key to Combatting Illegal Parts). A year on, we wanted to find out how the operation had been received, what has happened since then, where they are going with it now and whether West Midlands Police (WMP) face any new problems.
Chris informed us that the campaign continues and as a result of some of the work WMP did last year, they drew some attention from Government Minister for State at the Home Office, who at the time, was Nick Hurd, who then set up a national task force for vehicle crime with a few work schemes within that, one of which focused on the salvage market.
The scenario which they (the task force) painted suggested that the exploitation of the salvage market was being adopted by organised criminal gangs buying insurance write-offs from online auctions, then stealing vehicles for the parts, putting them back on the road with their real identity and then the spare parts going off through other online retailers. Another part of this is that cottage industries were developed where people purchasing parts from online retailers and not realising or not doing their own due diligence or in some cases that parts originated from stolen vehicles. Other activities involved the buying of the odd vehicle from online auctions and putting them back on the roads.
Chris thought that these individuals may not have the same criminal intent as the organised crimes but they are not doing due diligence; they are not following regulations; and they’re not licensed.
With effectively a change of Government, a new Prime Minister, a new Home Secretary and a new Policing Minister, everything which was established with the old Minister had to be revisited which has taken time to ascertain whether the incoming Policing Minister was going to continue supporting the national support group.
In the meantime, Chris and his team have carried on with their own enforcement campaigns which is actively seeking out chop shops and individuals and focusing on the vehicles that are on the road that are being stolen through things like car key burglaries and car jackings. They estimate there have been about 100 chop shops raided in the West Midlands alone since they started the chop shop campaign and several hundred stolen vehicles have been recovered through these raids.
The activity from the road policing units and motorway units looking out for those vehicles that are being driven between the point of theft to the point of being dismantled or being pushed into other use has been really impactive; several hundred vehicles have been recovered through this process, with arrests also amounting to several hundred. The operation name for this in the West Midlands was ‘Cantil’, a campaign which had various pieces publicised about it. Apart from the numerous vehicles seized and arrests made, they also gained a lot of intelligence from this showing the evidence of criminal exploitation of the market not just in terms of hearsay legitimate business which they can exploit but the individuals who are being exploited as well.
So whilst these operations have had an impact and a reduction in vehicle crime can be seen during that period, it is not back down to the levels that it was previously.
We asked Chris for an estimate on the number of chop shops in the West Midlands but he told us this is hard to identify. Though the campaign was successful in so far as increasing the intelligence flow, when the campaign began, they were, in effect, ‘scrapping around’ for information that would suggest where a chop shop might be and through the publicity that ATF Professional and others lent to the campaign it drew in a lot of information which still continues to flow. The fact that it does continue to flow means that the problem hasn’t been solved due to the structural issues which persist, something which comes back to the ministerial task force and the working group around that.
The new Policing Minister has expressed his support for the campaign and for the ministerial task force to continue so the momentum is being picked up again. However, the structural changes around removing cash purchasing from legitimate ATFs and introducing inspection accreditation regimes still has a way to go until it is changed but they’ve had some success through self regulation around this. The idea that the criminal can go to the auction site and through their terms and conditions, it would say they can pay cash to purchase vehicles, is something they suspect is happening far too frequently.
Chris stated that he has encountered some resistance from a few dismantlers who refuse not to take cash payments. Although operating lawfully, they fear that non cash payments may reduce their margins. However, they have heard from intelligence that those companies who don’t take cash for payments seem to be avoided by criminals and these companies also report that their has been no effect on their revenue. They will continue to push through the Policing Administrative and Home Office for changes to regulation and legislation to try and prevent this from happening. The quicker solution is self regulation across the industry but when there are global partners refusing to cooperate Chris commented that it is very challenging.
Earlier in the year Chris was invited to the BVSF AGM and gained a lot of positive feedback from dismantlers, including those from small and medium enterprises who said that they understood his concerns and that they were quite happy to stop taking cash payments. Chris said: “With one exception, I’ve been really pleased to note the collective corporate social responsibility across the industry. People in this business want to do the right thing, they want their profession to be recognised and know that pushing the criminal exploitation out only enhances their positive reputation. I have nothing but support.”
When asked how the vehicle salvage industry could help, he had the following advice:
“Be vigilant. Don’t become complacent with cash sales. Be aware of those who are not part of the regulated legitimate industry. Inform authorities where these chop shops may operate. Information where individuals who may be operating illegally can help enforcement agencies (WMP or its partners) take appropriate action.”
Momentum needs to keep going. Chris and his team will continue to push Government for an introduction of an inspection and safety regime for those vehicles that do go back on the road; an area which is more contentious. He remains convinced since the removal of the old vehicle Identity Check (VIC), which was arguably ineffective, that we’ve ended up with those people who are operating in a criminal space who can just put a vehicle back on the road without any kind of check as well as the risk around stolen vehicles and stolen parts being used. He considers this to be fundamentally unsafe and no one wants them on the road so his request to Government is not a reintroduction of VIC but a process which ensures vehicles that do go back on the road are safe and inspected only by professionals.
As a whole, ‘Operation Chop Shop’ has raised many important issues. The amount of effort has been impressive but there is obviously a long way to go to eradicate the problem with many agencies having a role to play. Chris has been encouraged and impressed by the positivity that he has received from the vehicle salvage recycling community and he is always happy to discuss with them how they can help.