IN FOCUS: On the streets with the robbery squad.
15:27 02 February 2013
Islington is in the grip of a phone snatch epidemic; in this calendar year alone there have already been 134 thefts by muggers on bikes or mopeds - with around 80 per cent involving an iPhone. Normally the victim will be walking along a busy road, texting or a using Facebook, when the thief whips past, grabbing their phone so fast they barely have time to react, let alone give chase.
And the police have had to adapt to this new crime wave, with teams now dedicated to stopping the snatchers. Our reporter Jon Dean went out on the beat with the robbery squad.
»As we cruise the streets of Islington on a bitterly cold night, the two specialist officers in our unmarked car constantly scan the urban landscape, spotting faces and mannerisms most people would ignore.
Coasting down Essex Road, the car suddenly screeches to a halt, turns on a sixpence and accelerates up Church Street at a speed that makes my lunch threaten a reappearance.
In front of us a young lad on a bike pedals off quickly – our blue lights come on and as quick as a flash, the car swings in front of him, forcing him to stop.
The driver, a Pc who wished to remain anonymous due to potential undercover work, said: “This guy is a prolific pedal thief and phone snatcher.
“That bike probably isn’t nicked or he wouldn’t have pulled a wheelie when he rode off. But we’ll spin him anyway.”
As snowflakes fall, the officers question the youth, while other lads pass by, kissing their teeth and cursing the police.
“Why don’t you just do your job?” the boy said, and in response the police keep him waiting while they check out his convoluted tale of how he got the bike.
On this occasion, it all seems legitimate and the young man is free to ride away – while we return to the vehicle and continue to prowl the streets for criminals.
This is just one incident in the new fight against phone crime, which exploded in the summer of 2011.
The other officer in the car, Pc Eliot Porritt, explains: “There has been a massive rise just in the three years since I started.
“When it first kicked off we were working until 5am every night, because we thought it was one gang doing it and we wanted to bring them in.”
Figures suggest there are about 100 people in the borough who are actively involved with the snatches – an outbreak that has seen traditional robbery and vehicle thefts drop correspondingly.
“Now we realise that all kinds of people are doing it – not just one demographic. People are carrying a £500 bit of kit around, and it’s just so easy,” said Pc Porritt.
As we continue the patrol, the officers constantly spot familiar faces and call out to them from the car, asking them where they’ve been and what they’re doing. Anything suspicious is logged.
They know most by name and have a bit of banter with many. Despite abuse from some, you sense there is a bit of mutual respect, like opponents sizing each other up.
We slow down alongside one young man and the officers ask him what he’s up to. He tells them he is going to his house nearby. “What are you on about?” says Pc Porritt. “You live miles away: we’ve taken you there before.”
Meanwhile the boy mutters “AJ’s out, AJ’s out” into his phone. “That’s part of our number plate,” says Pc Porritt. “It’ll be all over the internet in a minute.”
“We’re plain-clothed police and in unmarked cars, but we may as well not be,” says the other officer.
“They know us and they know the cars. You see them looking into the car park at the police station to check which cars are ours.
“I enjoy the beat, but we are arresting the same kids over and over. We can’t really go out in Islington. Most of us live a long way away, and even if we could afford to live here, we wouldn’t.
“The thing you have to remember is these are just kids and a lot of them have nothing,” the constable adds.
“You saw that lad there, all mouth, but when he gets arrested he cries.
“He cries so much they put him on suicide watch. Then back on the street he’s all mouth again.
“I’ve been to his house on a raid and it was bare floor boards, a mattress with no sheets, that kind of thing.
“He will be in that same jacket for six months and scuffing the streets at all hours.
“You can understand why some of them do what they do.
“But we arrest them, they go to court, the judges feel sorry for them and then they are back out here again. Something needs to change.”
Despite the speed of the snatches, the impact on the victims can be huge and many find it a very traumatising experience.
Islington police has launched a massive awareness campaign to warn people against using their phones in public.
If the robbery squad see people with their phones out in a danger area, they will advise them to put them away. “They normally look at you like you are weird,” says Pc Porritt, “Either that or they start texting again as soon as you turn away.”
But from the top of the Met to the bottom, people point the finger at a common culprit; the policies of some phone manufacturers.
They replace handsets with very few checks, meaning stolen phones can easily be replaced for new ones.
Bernard Hogan-Howe, commissioner of the Met, recently cited a case where the same person took 174 handsets back to the same shop.
“It could be stopped tomorrow,” said our anonymous officer.
“Make it so you have to enter the code to turn the phone off.
“When they are left on, we can track them and that would scare the thieves.
“The other day we pulled a moped rider with seven nicked phones... all because one of them was faulty, and wouldn’t turn off. But they just won’t do it.”