The unmarked police car had barely stopped moving when, in the sweltering summer heat of central London, PC Andy Marsh of Westminster CID swung the door open, jumped out and sprinted down the busy street to stop the suspect.
Andy was clutching his warrant card and a canister of ‘DNA’ spray; a forensic tagging fluid that’s just one of the new devices in an officer’s armoury as they tackle the often violent moped, motorcycle and scooter-enabled crime that’s been so prevalent in London.
Driving the inconspicuous Hyundai was Sergeant Matt Carey, Westminster SPoC (Single Point of Contact) for Operation Venice – the Met police’s action to reduce Powered Two Wheeler (PTW)-enabled crime.
London born and bred, Matt’s been in the Met for 15 years; his role is to identify patterns in PTW crime, look at hotspot areas and feed this information into the CID and neighbourhoods offices. He and the teams of undercover and uniformed officers deployed around Westminster know the best places to be each day, in order to react to crimes in progress… and prevent them happening in the first place.
Earlier in the day – while sat in the back of the car – I’d seen a scooter flash past then dive between two busses. Andy and Matt weren’t concerned – they’d watched how the rider reacted to other traffic and noted their clothing and other subtle tells like the way they were looking around… this was a legitimate rider.
Recognising the criminals on scooters – who might be out to grab phones from tourists, snatch watches from locals, or commit a smash and grab from one of the luxury shops in the borough – isn’t always a simple case of seeing them two-up with balaclavas and no number plate. The plate might have been stolen, the helmets afford a degree of anonymity, and they won’t necessarily be riding erratically. All the time while out on the street, officers are watching how riders behave.
Later a road-registered dirt bike roared past – that piqued their interest, and other members of the team deployed around the borough were radioed and on alert. If the rider had approached one of the crime hotspot areas, officers would have been ready to more closely monitor them, but scooter-enabled crime has been significantly reduced, and whereas this time last year we’d have likely seen several incidents, it was another hour before the atmosphere suddenly changed…
Before I’d even noticed a scooter, Andy was on the radio getting a check on the registration of a machine that had just passed by. The other teams were alerted and when the rider swerved past some cones to get to the front of the traffic lights, Andy jumped out and ran to the scooter, ready with the forensic tagging spray that would positively identify the rider if he tried to make off.
Matt joined Andy as they explained to the rider why they’d stopped him, and called in his details. Understandably he started to become agitated – was he annoyed over losing time while working, or did he have something to hide? The call came back that he has a previous conviction for stealing a phone with force, and Andy proceeded to search the rider and scooter.
Powered Two Wheeler (PTW) offending covers motorcycles, mopeds and scooters in crimes including incidents such as road rage, riding away without paying for fuel, and enabled crime like phone snatches or smash and grabs. “In July 2017,” Matt tells me, “Westminster had 334 PTW offences. In July 2018 it was down to 68; a dramatic decrease.
“Camden had 712 offences in July 2017, and is now down to about 64. In terms of the actual thefts of the bikes, it’s gone down from about 51 this time last year – peaking at about 61 in September 2017 – to about 22.
“These results are down to the police work that’s gone on in the respective boroughs, and us all supporting each other.”
While the man we’d stopped had previously been involved in exactly the type of crime that Operation Venice is targeting, nothing suspicious was found during the search, so he was free to go (with the advice to take a bit more notice of traffic cones). Hopefully later he considered his wasted few minutes worthwhile if it continues to force down the number of mopeds, motorcycles and scooters stolen, and reduces the violent crimes that are committed on them. If he is still involved in crime, then the intelligence gathered even from the simple stop will make it that bit harder for him to evade conviction in the future.
These two youths – both members of a criminal gang – are on a stolen scooter with a cloned plate
Our patrol focussed on the NW8 and St Johns Wood area – a particular hotspot for scooter-enabled crime with tourist traps like the famous zebra crossing on Abbey road seeing many people either distractedly walking there with their map app open on their phone, or taking pictures while their family line up on the white stripes.
Oxford street, Westminster and Regent street are also prime spots for people having their phones snatched away, but such a wealthy area is sadly going to be an ideal place for a potentially fruitful mugging too, the PTWs allowing criminals to quickly escape.
From organised crooks looking to ship bikes abroad, strip them or sell them on, to youngsters aiming for a quick win with a handful of phones, it’s a diverse selection of individuals and groups committing these crimes. “It’s predominantly youngsters,” says Sgt Carey, “though smash and grabbers tend to be a little older. But these criminals are coming from various boroughs – one group that committed 103 offences in the space of a few days were recently locked up by the Westminster Crime Squad; some were from Islington, but the handler was in Tower Hamlets, so communication and sharing of intelligence between the borough forces is vital.”
It’s the analysis of months and months of data – both previous crimes and calls from the public – that helps Matt and the team to find the most likely locations where crimes will be committed, as well as the routes the criminals will be taking to get in there and back out.
Pinch points have been identified that allow plain-clothes and uniformed officers to be stationed around the borough in order to quickly respond to reports from spotters, and take criminal riders off their scooters: “We’ve had a lot of success with this, especially in the West End, where the number of offences has dropped off significantly.”
But Matt and the other officers can’t do this themselves – they rely on information from the public to build the intelligence that leads to the capture and successful conviction of the criminals…
“People know it’s suspicious to see someone in overly heavy, dark clothing on a scooter when it’s really sunny for instance, or two-up without a number plate,” says Matt. “Please don’t hesitate – do call it in as it helps us work up a picture of where they’re coming from and the routes they’re taking. We need the public to help us so we can help them – we can’t know everything.”
“If anybody has any information about suspicious activities, we strongly encourage them to feed it into us. 101 is ideal, though of course if a crime is in progress, or you see people preparing with masks or even tools and weapons, call 999. It’s vitally important that intelligence comes into us, because it helps us identify areas where people are committing these offences, and also the routes the criminals are taking on the way, and where they’re coming from.”
Anybody with any information, regardless of where in the country they are, can also call CrimeStoppers anonymously if they prefer on 0800 555 111.
“Dash cam footage is very useful,” continues Sgt Carey. “If people have any imagery of suspicious riders, it’s extremely valuable – the intelligence picture is massive.”
It’s not just about spotting potential criminals – the police are targeting the handlers too: “We’d encourage members of the public to please let us know if they believe a location is being used for handling stolen goods.” That includes reporting online stores believed to be selling stolen property – reduce the opportunity for the criminals to off-load thieved items and they’ll struggle to make their money; “If you suspect anyone is selling stolen property, report it; if you’d rather pay twenty quid, knowing it might be iffy, you can’t go complaining to us when it’s knicked off of you.”
Far too often people believe that there’s no point telling the police about something suspicious or reporting a crime – they might think that the police haven’t reacted, but all of the information called in helps to form the bigger intelligence picture. Not every piece of info can lead to an immediate arrest, but over several months the police will be collating details that can lead to an arrest.
“What we need people to understand is that we can’t always get a conviction,” says Matt. An example might be spotting something for sale online that you believe was stolen from you; report it, as you might be contributing a piece to the puzzle. It could be the first or the last piece of that intelligence puzzle, but while you may know something’s yours, unless you can absolutely prove that in court, it might not get a conviction immediately. Just know that the more intelligence that comes through, the more chance the police have to build a picture that does lead to a conviction.
Every day, Matt scrutinises all the websites and social media groups that share the details of stolen bikes; “It can be frustrating when you look at some of the comments saying that the police aren’t doing anything, because you know you’re working long hours trying to get that property back for people.
“It can’t always be the case of course, but certainly in the vast majority of offences we are doing our utmost.”
Matt monitors a huge range of websites and social media groups, looks at selling sites, YouTube, and of course watches for subjects trying to glamorise the theft of bikes, or trying to sell them.
As the SPoC for Operation Venice, Sergeant Carey also regularly speaks to tracking companies, who feed in details of what’s being stolen and where; “If we know a bike’s in the back of a van for example, we’ll deploy officers down there to try to stop that van and return somebody’s property. If it ends up in a field then so be it – we’ll come down and find it.
“We have around a 55% recovery rate at the moment, which will fluctuate from month to month but rarely drops below 30% – we’ve also had highs of 70%, but it’s vitally important that we work with outside agencies and different partners in order to stop this type of crime.”
The police also work with businesses like NCP and Q-Parks to keep tabs not only on attempted thefts in these locations – which often offer free parking to motorcycles – but to gain reports on suspect machines that are being stored there, perhaps with a broken ignition barrel.
Back on the street, and every day there’s police activity – it’s not always obvious to the public as it often involves plain clothes officers. Other times tactics might require fully uniformed police – prevention of a crime is always the better option as then there’s no victim.
“We know that there have been some high profile cases regarding incidents where the police have either been in pursuit, or in the area where people have crashed, so we’re more than aware that the perception from members of the public is that the police won’t pursue because of the fear factor behind the follow-on investigations into those incidents,” says Sgt Carey.
“However, we’re continuing to do it because we know it’s the right thing to do and we know it’s the right tactic. And it’s putting the fear back into these offenders that they won’t get away with it, even if they do remove their helmet. In fact that makes it easier for us, because we can see their facial features, even if they’re wearing a balaclava.
“We’re certainly pursuing more now than we were two or three years ago because we’re getting more and more people trained in TPaC (Tactical Pursuit and Contact).”
An officer of course needs to consider the risks, and evaluate any danger to the public, but they’re also constantly in touch with the control room, to ensure the right decisions are made.
As well as TPaC and the DNA spray that every officer can use to invisibly tag the machine, a rider’s clothes and even their skin, there’s the remote-controlled ‘Pro Spike’ – a stinger-type device that can be used overtly or covertly, with the officer able to deploy it remotely in about a second, and retract it just as quickly. This helps the police to be more discreet where necessary, but can also prevent them coming to harm – an officer was unfortunately killed when a suspect veered around a stinger and hit them.
The media is quick to report a knife crime, but 30 snatch and grab convictions won’t make the front page – unfortunately bad news sells, and it’s the shocking stories that get the clicks, despite the fact that many of those less ‘exciting’ convictions probably stopped other attacks being carried out.
“How much crime is being prevented can never be measured,” says Matt. “On the flip side, you can measure how many offences there were, and how many there are now. If it’s working, keep doing it.”
It is working, but even the headline convictions don’t get shared on social media...
You’ve probably seen the video of the attempted theft of a Ducati Panigale on 6th December 2016 in Soho – bystanders being threatened with a hammer and angle grinder. It still resurfaces now, accompanied by comments that the police aren’t doing anything to capture these blatant criminals.
What’s little known is that the offenders were caught and successfully prosecuted. That job ended up with the Westminster Crime Squad, where there was an extensive investigation into certain suspects in the borough that were believed to be responsible for this type of crime.
The man waving the angle-grinder around in the video was Thomas McDermott, aged 24. On 8 March 2018 he was sentenced to 12 years and 6 months' imprisonment for conspiracy to commit robbery, seven counts of theft and two counts of attempted theft of motorcycles. Westminster CID had been monitoring this man as a result of information from the public; when this offence occurred, they didn’t know it was McDermott, but the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. Intelligence gathering is what led to that, and many other arrests.
Police forces look at how to identify subjects using CCTV footage, forensic evidence and other sources including social media. They look at the clothes worn by suspects (right down to the shoes), where they frequent, what bikes they ride, what routes they take… there’s so much information that can be brought together to form a picture that can lead to an arrest.
Hisham Tawfik, 20 – the man with the hammer – was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for seven counts of theft and two counts of attempted theft of motorcycles.
Along with them, 17-year-old George Fitzgerald was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for five counts of robbery. The judge waived the teenager’s right to anonymity following his role in violent knifepoint robbery attacks.
Intelligence gathered by the Westminster Crime Squad is what brought these three to justice: “We can’t know everything all of the time,” says Matt. “We’re human like everybody else, so are reliant on other humans to bring us information, but we will try our damnedest to get these people before a court if we believe they’re responsible for a crime.”
From left to right: McDermott, Tawfik and Fitzgerald were sentenced to a total of more than 20 years
Clearly, it’s vital that we all report anything suspicious anywhere in the UK, either through 101 or CrimeStoppers on 0800 555 111, but we also need to lock our scooters and motorcycles. “It’s massively important that people look after their property,” says Matt. “The Met’s message of ‘lock, chain cover’ makes sense – if you have an item of property that’s valuable to you, why make it easy to steal? Locking it up will significantly reduce the chance of it being stolen.
“It can’t completely prevent it being knicked, but it does help – thieves will look at the easy option. They’ll go to the next bike – the one without a lock, or the one without a cover. Why waste time cutting through a lock when there’s another machine with just a steering lock [or sometimes not even that]?
“In an ideal world, I’d love to see everyone locking, chaining and covering their bikes; the amount of thefts we’d get would be miniscule compared to what we’ve got at the moment. I’d say thefts would be reduced by about 90% as it’d be that much more difficult for the criminals. And if they were to have a go, they’d be using things like angle grinders, which while these can get through many locks, they are time consuming, which increases the chances of getting caught.” The crime will be a lot less tempting.
The public can’t know about all of the techniques used by officers to solve crimes, and they can’t be made aware of ongoing investigations, so all too often the perception – especially on social media – is that the police aren’t doing anything. Despite stretched resources, and the need to deal with every single crime type (not just scooter-enabled), the officers I’ve met here and from forces around the country have been truly passionate about their jobs.
Operation Venice has to be considered a success; “One day last year we had 31 scooter-enabled offences committed in just 45 minutes across Westminster, which shows the level of offending,” says Sgt Carey. “If you look at where we currently are, we average about three a day – a massive drop. That’s down to the number of people locked up, and the work put in by teams like ours.”
Criminals have been taken off the streets, though of course there’ll be others. Will they commit their crimes on powered-two-wheelers? Maybe less so – already criminals in Westminster are turning to push-bikes. “There’ll always be new ways to commit crime,” Matt says. “But there’ll always be new ways to fight it too.”