Photo by Andrew Brookes

Raid homes to get back phones

Cops need new powers to retrieve stolen property

Artillery Row

A phone is stolen in London every six minutes. I discovered this dumbfounding fact earlier this month when it was slapped across the front page of the Evening Standard I had picked up as I slugged down to the Tube. By the time I’d reached the third paragraph of this shocking story, my fingers had crept into my jacket to anxiously check if my phone was still nestled safely against my chest. It was. I was reassured. It made me wonder what it must be like to live in a city where locals aren’t shrouded by a near-constant fear of phone theft.

London is unlikely to become like those cities anytime soon, with just two per cent of the capital’s 91,000 phone thefts resulting in the recovery of the device last year. The borough of Westminster, which cradles the centre of Britain’s cultural and political domain, is afflicted with the largest portion of those thefts. It had 25,899 reports last year, with a recovery rate of just 1.3 per cent.

Thankfully it’s never happened to me, but plenty of my friends have been caught up in this crisis, with many enduring phone-snatching in my own borough. I’ve seen it first-hand around where I live. The modus operandi is simple enough: pedestrians peacefully scrolling-whilst-strolling suddenly have their device swooped from their hands by a man on a bike or moped, zooming off before the victim has time to react.

The sense of anguish that always follows being a victim of a crime — particularly a violent one — is compounded further in the case of phone theft, due to the hopelessness of achieving justice or recovering your property. In especially grim cases, the thieves will grab a phone whilst it is unlocked and keep it open until they are out of sight — which can’t take long, as there are so few police officers on the beat — before stripping the device of all its potentially profitable details. In these cases, the victim is in a race to get home and remotely lock their phone before the criminals can start their sweep of all their valuable data.

Victims are advised to report their theft to the police through the Met’s “report a crime” online portal. They receive an email from an address they can’t reply to confirming that it has been recorded. No one will phone them. Nothing will be done. The sole purpose of this near-pointless exercise is to receive a crime number that can be used when bartering with insurance companies.

Old Bill has many legitimate grievances in dealing with phone theft

In some cases, friends have done the intelligence work and tracked down the address where their stolen phone is being held — and possibly stripped for parts before being sent overseas — only to be told that there is still nothing the police can do.

This is an intolerable situation that must be urgently remedied. In many ways, the government is escaping criticism for this scandal by allowing it to be believed that the police are too busy doing “woke” activities like pride parades, or hunting down TERFs to arrest them for their tweets. Whilst these alternative practices are an embarrassment that need to be blocked, Old Bill has many legitimate grievances in dealing with phone theft.

We know that when given adequate powers and pounds, the police can rapidly clamp down on worrying criminal trends. Take the moped theft explosion of the last decade, which almost halved after the police were given additional powers in 2018. The moped robbers sparked a low-level anxiety on every street in central London. You genuinely felt an urge to look over your shoulder due to the sudden surge in the incidents. The wave of criminality was pushed back out to sea, however, after the police were committed to using “tactical contact” — that is, deliberately thwacking their cars into the bastard thieves — and suddenly the criminals didn’t feel like robbing on mopeds anymore. Being shunted by blue lights at high speed was a cost that many didn’t want to pay.

With the phone theft explosion, the police are in a similar tricky position: they want to do more, but they are limited. To alleviate their limits, ministers should urgently grant the police new powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) act, which currently does not grant power of entry for stolen property. Officers need to request a warrant. 

This lengthy process is made more difficult by phone snatchers being policed by shift-working response teams who focus solely on emergent calls, not dedicated teams for secondary investigations. Those response constables are swamped. If they are faced with six emergency calls in a day alongside the phone snatch incident, and one arrest takes them off the street for five of their eight hours on shift, what time do officers have left to do secondary investigations and start the paperwork-heavy warrant process? You don’t need to show your work to answer that one.

Not only do these response teams not have power of entry or the time to pursue suspects, but they are also often faced with geo-tracking intelligence that leads them to multi-occupancy buildings, such as high-rise tower blocks or social housing estates. A stolen phone could be anywhere, so their ability to target the specific property is limited.

Meanwhile, Londoners continue to walk around clutching their phones

A new strategy with updated powers and additional resources must be brought into effect urgently to halt the phone-theft epidemic. PACE must be expanded so that phone theft dens can be raided. Neighbourhood policing teams must grow and, in return for the additional resources, be forced onto the beat to gather intelligence on these criminal enterprises. The Johnson ministry’s pledge to grow the police was insufficient; it merely reversed some of the coalition-era cuts that gutted the capital’s capacity to fight crime. The Big Society can’t defeat motivated thieves. Nor can a police force that has seen the majority of its stations close since the Tories entered power in 2010.

The Met lacks the requisite political capital and communications nous to make the case for more resources and powers. At the moment, it appears that the vast majority of the media and the opinion-setting nexus of Britain has determined that it is institutionally racist, sexist and generally downright evil. If its leadership demanded more powers, a discussion would surely follow to ask if it could be “trusted” with them.

To turn the tide around, the government must boldly step in and give the Met what it needs, but what it lacks the capacity to request. 

Downing Street appears conscious of the fact that “Britain isn’t working” and that action is urgently needed to prevent electoral oblivion in 2024. The problem is that so many of these crises are a direct consequence of the government’s own actions. The calamities surrounding crime is one of the clearest examples of the Tories’ self-inflicted dramas. 

Fulham MP Greg Hands is developing a bizarre knack for constantly tweeting the 2010 “there’s no money” letter left behind by the outgoing Labour government. After 13 years of conservative-led ministries, this kind of excuse-making has slumped from being cringe-inducing to infuriating. It’s indicative of a lazy strain of thinking that is all too common amongst Conservatives — an attitude which holds that they are somehow devoid of responsibility for the disasters that are keeping good people awake at night across the country.

On crime in general, and theft in particular, there is no guilty note left by a Labour minister that Conservatives can use to cleanse their hands. Instead, the Tories are reliant on London’s Frankenstein Monster of Crime — with Osbornite austerity meeting woke liberalism. Cutting the funding means police don’t have the resources to fight crime, wokeness means the public don’t demand it, and this apathy means that the government ignores it all. 

Meanwhile, Londoners continue to walk around clutching their phones, occasionally looking over their shoulders, hoping that a two-wheeled thief doesn’t pounce.

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