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The Metropolitan Police want members of the trade to become part-time volunteer police officers as part of a budget initiative to tackle art and antiques crime in London. The new scheme, dubbed ArtBeat, is the first time the Met have tried to recruit volunteer or special constables with knowledge of a specific subject area.

By recruiting volunteers from the art and antiques trade, ArtBeat intends to bring more object expertise and knowledge of how the market works into the policing arena. The initiative had a ‘soft’ launch at the end of March targeting museum and gallery staff for recruitment as increased dialogue with museums is one of the aims of ArtBeat.

Now Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley of the Art and Antiques Unit wants companies from the commercial sector to sponsor employees to participate in the scheme. He hopes to have 24 interested parties by the end of the month with the first ArtBeat officers on active duty by late 2006.

The Special Constabulary, which this year celebrates its 175th birthday, has traditionally been a volunteer-based organisation, although last year saw the first police-employer partnership arrangements that will be key to the success of ArtBeat. Similar pilot schemes titled ShopWatch, HospitalWatch and CampusWatch have been deemed beneficial, particularly when working alongside other police initiatives such as the Safer Neighbourhood Teams.

Sponsored by their employer, each trainee will attend a four-week course: 18 days training as normal part-time police officers or ‘specials’, where they will learn everything from how to caution a suspect to truncheon technique, followed by a course on art crime. This will cover fakes and forgeries, stolen and looted art, money laundering etc, and provide a grounding on the law.

On graduation, each team member will be expected to put in 200 hours a year (the equivalent of a day a fortnight) to be sponsored by the employer. There is no pay but Special Constables can claim expenses and get free travel on London Transport.

DS Rapley and his colleagues on the six-strong full-time Art and Antiques Unit expect to see the ArtBeat specials providing expert advice and support for Met officers and other police forces dealing with art crime. They will also work with the art trade, auction houses, museums, galleries, insurance companies and property recovery agencies to reduce and tackle crime, as well as collating intelligence and recording stolen works of art on to an image database. Other duties will include liaising with international law enforcement agencies to combat the illicit trade in cultural heritage and investigating serious art crime where expert knowledge is needed.

The Met want ArtBeat to be a high-profile initiative with a key role patrolling art crime ‘hotspots’, such as some antiques markets. They believe that high visibility will deter criminals and reassure the public and businesses. It is also hoped that the presence of officers fluent in art market language will encourage victims to bring more crimes to light.

ArtBeat officers will have full police powers to search and confiscate, and to arrest those they suspect of having committed an art crime and, in exceptional circumstances, may be called on to undertake additional police work.

DS Rapley denied suggestions that the initiative was a veiled attempt to conceal the inadequacies of Government funding. ArtBeat he says, simply reflects his belief that “it is easier to train a curator as a police officer than it is to turn a policeman into an art market specialist.” However, bar providing uniforms and travel on London Transport, the scheme has little received funding. For example, police want the private sector to consider sponsoring information technology and vehicles.

The BBC and Channel 4 are considering making a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the first batch of recruits and DS Rapley hopes this will encourage sponsorship for the scheme.

By Roland Arkell