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Surrey police use Pinterest to return stolen property to victims of crime

In June 2013 Victoria Hunter, a Detective with Surrey Police executed a search warrant at the home of a burglar and recovered a large quantity of watches and jewellery. Having checked the stolen property records she realised that it would be very difficult to re-connect what might have been stolen with the owners. Some property was poorly described on the crime reports. It was made more difficult because the area where the offences had taken place crossed police force boundaries. So there were some items that apparently were not recorded as stolen goods.

This scenario will be recognised by every operational police officer wherever they work.

In discussing the situation back in the office a (Civilian) Team Co-ordinator Dawn Lewis mentioned Pinterest the ‘pinboard-style’ photograph sharing social media website and the hypothesis was posed, “Why don’t we post images of the recovered items on a specific Pinterest page and invite victims of crimes to identify what, if anything is theirs?”

As we know “a picture says a thousand words”.

So whilst Vic liaised with the intelligence unit and searched for all the offences that were committed with the subject’s particular style (MO) other colleagues from the team rallied around and supported her by separating all of the pieces of jewellery. DC Phil Leaver had the weary task of capturing images of every piece of jewellery and Investigating Officer Jane Richards went on to upload them all to the Surrey Police Pinterest page. Jane completed this with the support of Matt Heeley from the force’s Online and Production team who arranged access to Pinterest via the force’s IT system.

Meanwhile the Detective had written to every known possible victim and introduced them to the plan for the victims to view the goods and introduced some to Pinterest itself. These letters were hand delivered by neighbourhood officers whilst patrolling their beats. Over 100 letters were delivered.

So there was a suspect, a haul of possibly stolen goods all uploaded to Pinterest and we had over a hundred people who were potentially the true owners of this ‘swag’ with access to the URL – .

What happened next?

The victims could in their own time and at their own pace review the property photographs. This meant Surrey Police did not need to mount an expensive display of property that might not be visited or where victims could feel under pressure to choose or reject property.

The viewing could be done on the train en route to the office or at home in the eventing calm.

Victims who were uncertain whether an item was actually theirs could seek evidence in the form of receipts or photographs with the picture on-line and with them to compare.

The investigative team would support people who were uncertain about any item. They would check for serial numbers, known damage or marks known only to the owner to confirm or deny ownership.

Due to the novel way the victims had of interacting with the property on Pinterest some people discovered more items in subsequent viewings once they had found one item.

To date no criminal has tried to fraudulently claim goods that are shown on Pinterest.

Furthermore knowing that the suspect committed offences in areas policed by other forces by sharing the Pinterest page officers across the country could have their victims to check to see if their stolen property had been recovered by Surrey Police.

What does all this mean?

The Surrey Police Pinterest experiment is still on-going and there is more work to do. It is a local solution to a specific set of circumstances and of course like the best ideas it has been suggested and actioned by the local team members with appropriate headquarters support. However there is a lot of potential for using Pinterest not just across local police boundaries but internationally. For example it would be entirely possible to share images between detectives from around the world. Also public appeals for missing people could be supported by photos on Pinterest and the “pin-board” updated by people globally potentially helping to protect the vulnerable.

I am sure there will be many Law Enforcement professionals out there who have similar experiences to Vic, Phil, Jane and Dawn and would encourage them to reply to this post suggesting ways in which the rest of us can work smarter, not harder.

Roger Nield is the Runnymede Neighbourhood Inspector for Surrey Police in England. He joined Greater Manchester Police in 1985 and served in Salford and Wigan divisions and on the Tactical Aid Unit before transferring to Surrey in 2000.
Here he has worked on Operational Support and response teams before retuning to Neighbourhood Policing in 2005.

Roger has a master’s degree in Police Science and Management and a Batchelor of Science degree with honours in Policing and Police Studies both from Portsmouth University. He became a Bramshill Fellow in 2008. He and other authors published a paper* of research into the interviewing of vulnerable people in 2002.

Roger’s areas of expertise include Safer Neighbourhood Policing, Co-Location of policing and local authority staff, CCTV, project planning, Operational and Emergency planning, Public Order and CBRN policing and he is learning about the police use of social media. He has recently begun blogging.

* Nield, R., Milne, R., Bull. R. and Marlow, K. (2003) The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and the interviewing of vulnerable groups: A practitioner’s perspective. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 8 (2), September 2003,223-228



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