We’ve just pulled out of the Eccles Police Station car park when PC Paul Ashworth begins getting information over his radio about a Ford Focus with part of its ‘front end hanging down’.
Police had received reports that it was involved in an accident in which it failed to stop and received further calls about other “near misses” and dangerous driving.
The car activated an ANPR camera near the Lancashire border before being ‘pinged’ on a camera at Lancs heading back towards Greater Manchester.
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Using this information, officers from PC Ashworth’s special unit at GMP are beginning to track it and make their way to the area it’s likely headed for.
PC Ashworth suddenly activates his lights and sirens and begins to accelerate when told it has been spotted on the M66 at Bury.
A Stinger on the M66 junction (Image: Manchester Evening News)
The police helicopter is sent up as PC Ashworth flies down the M60 towards Simister Island to join the operation to intercept them, flashing and beeping cars in the outside lane to get out of his way.
When we arrive, the car has already stopped on the ramp of exit 2, where police cars had “boxed” and blocked the exit. A spike had also been laid across the road in case he got through – but this time it wasn’t necessary.
The 38-year-old driver was arrested and arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of drugs and dangerous driving. “If we can predict a target to arrive, our unit can get there first and mitigate any pursuit,” says PC Ashworth.
The smashed Ford Focus (Image: GMP Traffic (Twitter))
“He has now been stopped, no harm, no problem for the public and he is under arrest. That’s the ability we have.”
Paul is one of the officers of GMP’s Roads Policing Taskforce (RPTF), which was set up in March last year to use data from the force’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras, as well as information from the public that the force received directly and by Crimestoppers to target “high risk” drivers.
It’s made up of two teams – each consisting of a Sergeant and five PCs – and they use off-road and racing bikes and liveried police cars in the hope that eventually they’ll have unmarked abilities as well.
PC Paul Ashworth (Image: Manchester Evening News)
At least half of the 90 or so fatal accidents in Greater Manchester last year involved alcohol or drugs – I’m told and the aim is to arrest these people before they kill or cause serious injury.
“We’re essentially an add-on to our traffic unit,” says PC Ashworth. “When people call and say, ‘This person is driving under the influence, this person is driving while drunk, this person is a disqualified driver and drives every day, it’s beyond the capabilities of an entity like traffic that doesn’t have the resources to handle it, so we were set up to look at that.
“We’ve been used to attack high-risk drivers, drink and drug drivers, disqualified drivers. They have disqualified drivers who are considered high risk and will continue to drive.
Inspector Jon Middleton talks about how his team is using information from ANPR cameras
“They may have been convicted of offenses such as death by dangerous driving and released from prison and then continued to drive.”
He said the other key issue the unit is dealing with is “cloned” vehicles – whose true identities have been concealed through the theft or duplication of another car’s license plates. PC Ashworth says there is a “massive problem” in Greater Manchester, where there are at least 150 cloned cars of which officials are aware.
Information on this comes from a number of sources, including NPR cameras, insurance companies and the DVLA.
Insp. Middleton in Clifton, Salford, where the ‘cloned’ van was stopped (Image: Manchester Evening News)
“We think they go hand in hand. Their cloned vehicles are used by disqualified drivers who don’t want to be seen and caught. They are used by uninsured drivers, drink and drug drivers. If they can hide the identity of that car, it minimizes their chances of being pulled over.”
Not if PC Ashworth and his team have anything to do with it. His phone, which displays the ANPR system, “pings” continuously, at least once a minute, with details of “alerts” being set off by cars driving past cameras.
“After a while, you learn which registrations are which, and you know which ones are real,” he says.
I join one of PC Ashworth’s patrols which later takes us to Clifton in Salford and see this in action when his eyes are suddenly drawn to a silver Vauxhall Astra van. It previously activated an ANPR camera in the Salford area and is suspected of being a clone.
Based at Eccles Police Station, the unit uses road and off-road bicycles and patrol cars (Image: Manchester Evening News)
Each force has a list of ‘vehicles of interest’ that they are constantly on the lookout for and PC Ashworth is famous for memorizing them, his colleague in the front seat, Inspector Jon Middleton, who is GMP’s ANPR manager, tells me.
As the van pulls towards us, PC Ashworth reads the registration out loud and says, “Is that that clone?” before radioing to make sure it’s one they’ve been tracking.
After receiving confirmation, he catches up and follows for a short time before stopping and coming to what police call a “natural stop.”
The van was impounded as the driver was uninsured (Image: Manchester Evening News)
The 41-year-old driver is handcuffed and put in the back of the police car while Insp. Middleton questions his passenger. PC Ashworth conducts a “drug wipe procedure” where a person’s saliva is tested for traces of cocaine and cannabis and comes back positive for cocaine.
Back at the station, a blood sample is taken and sent for analysis to determine the exact level in his system. According to PC Ashworth, he also only held a provisional licence, meaning he was uninsured.
“We’ve been after this one for ages,” says an officer from a car that comes to the rescue.
The van is searched and checked by officers and the registration does not match the VIN, meaning it is indeed a clone. The vehicle to which the registration actually refers is another Astra – in Bolton.
“The van it was supposed to be, the registration it showed was insured, it was registered, it had an MOT,” PC Ashworth said. “So there would be no reason why a police officer would try to stop this vehicle. The real registration had no insurance, no TÜV, it had no owner. If he drove that on his normal license plates, we would stop him.”
A man later arrested on suspicion of immigration offenses is approached by officers after being stopped (Image: Manchester Evening News)
Since there is no insurance, a sticker is put on the window that reads ‘Seized by Police’ while locals look on. A tow truck then comes almost immediately to pick it up. “This is a cloned vehicle, a drug driver and an uninsured driver off the road all at once,” says PC Ashworth.
The stop was the perfect example of ANPR and old-fashioned policing working hand-in-hand, says Insp. Middleton.
Another arrest by PC Ashworth, which is instead a classic case of “copper nose”. We are driving near Heaton Park in Prestwich when his attention is drawn to a VW Passat which he begins to follow.
He comes to a stop on Meade Hill Road. The driver gets out of the car, which PC Ashworth says “reeks of cannabis”. A drug swab on the driver came back negative and no drugs were found on either the 29-year-old or his 17-year-old brother, who was in the passenger seat.
PC Ashworth is famous among colleagues for memorizing registration numbers (Image: Manchester Evening News)
However, inside the car is lighting that both officials believe was or is intended to be used when growing cannabis. Although there is insufficient reason to arrest any of them in this connection, PC Ashworth warns the driver that officers would soon “come through your door” if they were involved in the manufacture of drugs.
He also tells us information about the stop could later prove to be “vital intelligence.”
“Should anything else come to light, should a neighbor report that they can smell cannabis in the early hours of the morning or our helicopter flies by and there is a heat source at the house, there will be an intelligence report stating that both of these devices have been stopped, that could be used in growing cannabis, and in return you would get a search warrant,” he says.
Officers on off-road bikes, also part of the unit, come to the rescue. The 29-year-old man is an Albanian citizen who holds a Greek driver’s license and PC Ashworth is verifying his immigration status to meet all the criteria.
Insp Middleton wants cameras set up for the Clean Air Zone to become part of the force’s ANPR network so they can ‘catch more baddies’ (Image: Manchester Evening News)
The man confesses that his visa expired nine years ago and he is arrested at the request of the UK Border Agency and taken into custody for questioning. Officers are also conducting security checks at the Harpurhey address where his younger brother lives before handing over the incident.
“ANPR is not the be-all and end-all,” says Insp. Middleton. “It’s just another tool in the arsenal. But we have seen examples today where ANPR has resulted in a vehicle being contained and stopped. It was a safe stop because ANPR allowed officers to forestall him.
“But we’ve also seen an arrest on pure instinct, really nothing to do with ANPR. So not only can we rely on it, but it’s definitely a massive, massive tool for our use.”
Insp Middleton has called for the 400+ ANPR cameras set up to enforce the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) to eventually be added to the armed forces’ network. Data can currently be obtained from them on request, but Insp. Middleton says it would be of great benefit to his team and other officers if it was fed directly into police systems.
Such a move would require public consultation. However, Insp. Middleton says, “The more cameras we have, the more information we get, the more information we get and the better chance they have of doing their job and stopping these vehicles, impounding them and arresting the bad guys.”
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