What is it about an outdoor stage, a muddy field and neon wristbands that makes us all okay about leaving our possessions in collapsible tents?
‘I zipped the flaps shut,’ we say, ‘my ID and phone will be perfectly safe in here.’
It’s a testament to festival organisers that their partying patrons feel so secure at their events. Although most people know at least one victim of some festival crime, ranging from the mild (a stolen phone or tent vandalism) to the sinister (drugs overdose, physical abuse), a ‘it won’t happen to me’ mentality still exists among most festivalgoers.
It makes organisers’ already stressful jobs all the more difficult. In addition to making sure the festival runs smoothly and without incident, they now have to contend with a calculated and organised crime effort sweeping across the UK festival scene year after year.
“It’s very much organised,” said Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn. Six years ago, Benn began the Crime at Major UK Festivals Conference to combat what he felt was the rise in festival crimes due to the non-communication between police, security and organisers.
“There was no real coordination in terms of the police on how to deal with what was, at times, criminal activity,” Benn told Access. “You could
see it happening at Leeds, Reading, Latitude and other festivals.
“We brought together all leading festival promoters and festival security companies and police forces in the areas with major festivals so that everyone was in the same room to discuss general issues of crime at festivals.”
The conference started six years ago with a little more than 100 delegates; this year, 200-plus festival organisers, security professionals and police attended the meeting in Reading.
“From a policing perspective,” said Chief Superintendent of West Yorkshire Police Andy Battle, “the conference is an opportunity for police forces to get together with organisers, promoters and private security firms to share good practice – to share our problems and come together to agree on how best to tackle those problems.”
There is no better way of ensuring best practice, Battle believes, than swapping stories with professionals from all over the UK. “Individual forces host one or, at most, two festivals per year, and it’s very different to look within your own host force for best practice,” he said. “You need to look outside. The conference gives the opportunity to understand and learn lessons from past festivals and head up problems this year before they even start.”
The main focus this year was information sharing between everyone involved. Although individual festivals have their own markets and way of doing things – from hospitality to entertainment to security – they all share the same concerns when it comes to curtailing crime in all its various forms.
“It’s worth discussing those concerns,” Benn said. The organised nature of crimes happening at festivals wasn’t something, he said, “we could afford to ignore any more. Local police forces were thinking of it as something that was just happening in their force’s area rather than organised.”
Information sharing is exactly what it sounds like: a festival early in the season, like Download Festival in June, takes note of the crime occurring and how they are dealing with it, and passes those notes onto the next festival. Down the chain the information goes, until the 80% of major festivals that Benn says his conference covers know all the details of common crimes and the best ways to combat them.
“It is literally all about info sharing,” Benn said. “That is the absolute essence to combatting it. Because it is organised, there is a reasonable chance that we have got sufficient intelligence around the criminals to identify exactly who they are, and to be able to share that information between police forces and security companies. These are people we need to be looking out for.”
For Battle and the police, information sharing means that there is a support system in place to answer questions and share tactics. “I know the colleagues to contact who may have experienced [that crime] already,” Battle said. “Throughout the summer we keep in touch and brief each other. Then, we share our good practice – if someone finds a way to reduce vulnerability, for instance – we share the tactics. I learn from other police colleagues and festival organisers, and similarly, other will learn from me.
“We’re sharing operational good practice, intelligence and planning.”
Festivals are seen as easy pickings for criminal organisations. Organised, acquisitive crime is on the rise – it’s not just some petty local thieves thinking they’ll try their luck in a few unattended tents. Criminal gangs fly to the UK with the specific goal of hitting festivals.
Battle says that organised criminal actions at UK festivals has been on the rise for the past three or four years. “Each year we’re seeing that the teams are becoming more organised and more determined,” he said.
“They don’t operate across traditional police boundaries. They operate internationally across Europe. We do suffer from local opportunists, but we’re being targeted by organised groups across the UK that will each weekend visit a different festival.”
The scale of the problem forced police and organisers to mature their information sharing arrangements. Now, looking to the 2014 festival season, Battle feels that they are in the strongest position ever to combat organised crime – although he cautioned that the criminals were maturing at pace.
“They’re determined and so are we – we’ll stay vigilant and tackle the problem,” he said. “Sharing intelligence helps us keep up with and get ahead of them.”
That police and security vigilance will hopefully mean the decline of the most prevalent crime: mobile phone theft.
“At the moment, it’s the theft of mobile phones,” said Benn. “It’s quite a targeted campaign – it’s not as opportunistic as people might think. There have been quite a number of reports of criminal gangs.”
In this area, information sharing has been extremely important, not just in identifying suspects but in recovering the stolen phones. The cohesiveness that comes with sharing crime details, theft targets and methods has resulted in sending a strong message to criminals that festivals are no longer a walk in the park.
“We’ve got better at recording information about crime activities, at crime scene management. We get more prosecutions, and what more prosecutions means is that it does go through to the criminal fraternity that we are getting better. It’s not quite the easy pickings it used to be,” Benn said.
Still, compared to major cities, Benn insisted, festivals have a markedly low crime rate. This new information sharing approach, with the cooperation of local police, hired security companies and organisers, aims to completely eradicate criminal activity from festivals.
“To be fair,” Battle said, “we don’t see a lot of disorder these days. We have what we would class as antisocial behaviour – nuisances on campsites. Acquisitive crime is the big problem.”
With organised, acquisitive crime in police and festival organisers’ crosshairs, it’s gearing up to be a very poor summer for festival-targeting criminal gangs. And that’s good news for the rest of us.
This was first published in the May issue of Access All Areas. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson
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