Since the end of 2007, police in the UK have run a secret network of fully-furnished fake apartments and townhouses, solely for the purpose of capturing local burglary suspects. These are called "capture houses."
First experimented with in the city of Leeds, capture houses are "secret homes fitted with covert police cameras, which film raiders and unique chemical sprays which contaminate intruders have led to further arrests in the area," the Yorkshire Evening Post reported in December 2007. These chemical sprays and forensic coatings—applied to door handles, window latches, and other goods throughout the properties, including TVs, laptops, and digital cameras—are the same "SmartWater" used in booby traps to mark intruders.
Recently, as part of my research for a book I'm writing about burglary and architecture, I spoke with Detective Chief Inspector Dave Stopford of the South Yorkshire Police about the "capture house" program.
Based in the city of Rotherham, Stopford explained to me the hit-and-miss nature of a capture house. Some of the fake apartments have been open for as little for one day before being hit by burglars, and as long as nearly a year without being broken into even once. As Stopford went on to describe, these otherwise uninhabited residences are fully stocked, complete with electronic equipment, lights on timers, and bare but functional furniture, and they tend to be small apartments located in multi-unit housing blocks.
That apartment you pass everyday on the fourth floor, in other words, might not be an apartment at all, really, but an elaborate trap run by the police, bristling inside with tiny surveillance cameras and ready to spray invisible chemical markings onto anyone who steps inside—or slips in through the window, as the case may be.
The program rapidly proved popular amongst the region's police services, and has since rolled out nationwide. Indeed, only within a matter of months from their inception—by April 2008—"capture houses" were "set to be unleashed across West Yorkshire," popping up in such bustling locales as Wakefield, Kirklees, and Huddersfield, as well as in larger cities like Birmingham and Nottingham.
An individual capture house is most often set up by technical units operating within the police service, Stopford told me. These are employees who are not themselves police officers, but who work for the police service; they have the expertise to install the hidden cameras, the microphones, the fiber optics or Wi-Fi networks, and even the chemical sprays, let alone the most basic details of all, such as timers for the lamps and TVs. It is really an elaborate ploy of interior design and electrical engineering, all in the name of creating representationally accurate fake spaces indistinguishable from the real thing.
Stopford joked that, once, unable to secure funds for the proper furniture and goods they needed to stock one of the local capture houses, an officer simply went desk to desk requesting any unused or soon to be discarded furnishings; most of the officers contributed something—a bedside table, an old couch, a tattered carpet past its prime—thus creating what could be thought of as the perfect distillation of a police officer's apartment, a flat specifically furnished only with things taken from local cops. If only the burglar they later captured there had a better eye for law enforcement taste in interior design.
Oddly, once apprehended, many of the criminals are shown DVDs of their crime, as if they had inadvertently broken into a private film studio meant just for them, their own motion picture house, 15 minutes of fame captured on miniature cameras only the most paranoid among us would look for or even see.
As the BBC put it in 2008, each captured thief is "unwittingly the star of the show."
Beyond actually trapping local burglars, the capture house program's overriding and perhaps most successful effect is to inspire a very peculiar form of paranoia in those who would otherwise make a living from breaking and entering: the uncanny feeling that perhaps this apartment is not real, but a kind of well-furnished simulation, a mirage run by the local police department and overseen by invisible cameras.
Apartments, entire houses, and shopfronts—anything can become a "capture house," similar to the "bait car" phenomenon found both here, in the United States, and in the UK.
As Assistant Chief Constable Dave Crompton explained to the BBC, "The capture house is completely indistinguishable from any other house in that street or area. The difference is the house is rigged up with hidden cameras which are so small that no-one is going to spot them or know where they are hidden. And the first that the burglar knows is when we are dropping on them to arrest them."
Even if you're looking for one, he confidently implies, you won't find it. You won't know you've broken into a fake apartment until the police come looking for you.
The specific notion of the "capture house," of course, can easily spread and be adopted elsewhere. Fake storefronts set up by the LAPD, for example, have been used to trap would-be thieves, fences, and smugglers, and, as already mentioned, bait cars are a common technique.
However, more abstractly, the bizarre notion that those houses or these apartments standing around us are fake—that they exist as a kind of police simulacra, both deceptive and alluring—inspires the uncanny sensation, like something of The Matrix, that we simply do not ever fully know the motives behind the buildings we see or the spaces we enter.
For all we know, the capture house program implies, we ourselves have, in fact, come into contact with one of these traps—that is, we've looked out the window at night to see an IKEA desk lamp burning in an empty apartment somewhere and, while we briefly wondered who was at home or why they hadn't turned their lights off, it was actually a kind of reality TV show run by cops, patiently studying that empty room—watching and staring—on a network of hidden cameras.