Five tips for solving your own crimes

Police

Overburdened police are encouraging crime victims to investigate their own cases, an inspection in England and Wales has found. How might one safely go about this, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

1. Keep your own CCTV as evidence

There are nearly five million CCTV cameras in the UK, according to latest estimates from the British Security Industry Authority (BSIA), but some areas aren't covered by a lens. Simple home security systems, including cameras, can be bought from sites like Amazon, and can capture crimes as they happen. The video produced by the most basic cameras is perfectly acceptable as evidence, says Keith Cottenden of CY4OR, a forensics firm, but be aware that privacy issues can apply. Filming your own property is fine - filming a neighbour's is not.

2. Take statements from neighbours

Iain Stanton, a lecturer in policing and criminal justice studies at the University of Cumbria, says that though statements from witnesses to crimes could be admissible in a court, "a number of questions would potentially be raised in respect of comments or explanations given to people with no investigatory experience". But asking simple factual questions like "tell me what happened", "explain to me what you saw", and "can you describe that in more detail?" are useful starting points.

3. Invoke the wisdom of the crowd

Though it can backfire spectacularly - such as when users of Reddit, a popular message board, incorrectly identified bystanders as responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings by trawling through CCTV images - there is some wisdom in the crowd. Posting as much information as possible about the crime online can jog people's memories, and spread awareness far and wide. And many goods taken in burglaries end up on websites such as Craigslist and Gumtree, so also keep an eye out online.

4. Use the technology available to you

Smartphones remain attractive to thieves. A quarter of us have had our phones stolen from us, according to security company Lookout - but they can be tracked. Make sure you have Find my iPhone, or one of the many rival apps, installed and enabled on your phone. Following an e-trail of your phone's whereabouts can help police locate it quicker.

5. Don't pursue the criminals yourself

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is a simple one - by all means collect and collate evidence, but don't try and confront the criminals responsible yourself. That much can still be left to the police.

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