Burglars beware: the world’s first crime-fighting shoe-scanner is here

They don’t have a nickname for it yet, but it’s the new star of Colindale police station in north London. It’s a box that looks a bit like a bathroom scale with hazard patterning, and it has singlehandedly nabbed 71 burglars in the past eight months. It’s their new footwear-scanner and for now it is unique. Soon, though, it will be a basic part of many custody officers’ procedures: fingerprints, photograph, DNA, shoe-print. The plan is to roll the scanners out to the rest of London over the next year, then nationally. Beyond that, the Metropolitan police are talking to interested parties from as far away as the US.

“You can take a lot of measures to disguise your actions if you’re burgling homes,” explains Commander Simon Letchford, the Crime Prevention lead at the London Metropolitan Police, “But unless you’re going to do it walking on your hands, it’s not possible to disguise your shoe-print.”

Everyone’s shoe-print is unique – the police have long known that. The problem they have faced has been one of processing. “Historically, prints were taken with paper and ink,” says Constable Jason Hall, who has been working with the Colindale scanner for eight months. “Then you’d send them off to the central database where they’d be entered manually. The whole process would take between three and five days, by which point a lot of suspects would be out on bail or released.”

Officers now pass about 70% of suspects through the device – up from 3% under the old system. In one case, a man arrested for a minor offence was linked to seven local burglaries, thanks to the scanner.

Of course, the system relies on a criminal still owning the shoes they used during the crime after their arrest. “But you’d be surprised,” Letchford contends. “A lot of these trainers are quite expensive. It’s a fashion thing.”

That was also borne out in 2010 when a PhD student Matthew Tonkin compared shoe-prints across Northamptonshire to conclude that local burglars were most commonly rocking Reebok Classics. He also suggested an inverse relationship between the social deprivation of the burglar and the price of their trainers.

But Letchford doesn’t want to comment on that. “Because some of these shoe models are quite rare, it gives us the ability to link quite a lot of crimes together. We know what the most popular lines are, but that’s sensitive information.”

In hindsight, it seems an obvious bit of automation. But no one had thought of connecting scanners to the database before a police officer, Julie Henderson, a sergeant at Colindale when she came up with the idea, now a detective inspector with Letchford’s team, sourced and designed the interface. It’s all part of a broader wave of information technology in crime prevention. After a sharp increase in the 1980s and 90s, burglaries have fallen 14% in the past year, to their lowest levels since the 1970s. Right now it seems that, in the tech war between cops and criminals, the law is pulling ahead.

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