Moment brazen thieves try to steal luxury watches from undercover police - and are mobbed by other officers

17 January 2024, 07:04 | Updated: 17 January 2024, 11:15

Undercover Met police officers pose as watch theft victims to catch thieves in Soho

Fraser Knight.

By Fraser Knight.

‘Courageous’ undercover police officers have arrested dozens of watch thieves in Central London after wandering the streets wearing visible ‘luxury’ watches.

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Plain-clothes officers have acted in criminal hotspots covering Westminster, South Kensington, Chelsea, and Mayfair where they say gangs have been targeting people as they leave bars and clubs.

CCTV footage shared with LBC shows lone officers wandering the streets of Soho - where around a third of all of London’s watch thefts are reported.

They’re seen being approached by gang members who ask if they want to buy drugs, go to a brothel or join an after party.

As they are led down a quiet street, thieves then attempt to steal their watch before other officers on standby are seen running in and making arrests.

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Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, during a regular Call the Commissioner slot, the Met's top cop Sir Mark Rowley said criminals will be "kept on their toes" by his officer's operations to tackle phone and watch robberies.

Sir Mark hailed the bravery of his undercover officers saying they are acting with "real guts" to go out and "be robbed by violent criminals".

Undercover officers pose as watch theft victims

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Ben Russell, Met Commander for intelligence and covert policing, said: "These officers are incredibly brave. They volunteer for this role, and they know they’re going to be standing in the dark streets of Central London waiting to be robbed.

"It’s quite physical, they’re being manhandled, and the criminals are getting right up in their face.

"We know the kinds of places these gangs are likely to be, and we’ve been very successful with it.

"If you compare the crimes taking place in those areas in the summer beforehand and summer afterwards, we’re seeing about a 50% reduction in robbery from this and a range of other tactics we use."

It comes after new data found 29,000 watches had been reported stolen to the Met in the last five years, with one in five of those thefts involving violence.

Between April and Sept 2022, as the force started using the undercover tactic, the Met says 300 luxury watches were stolen in the West End alone, worth around £4 million.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, between 11pm and 4am, were identified as the most times that thefts would most often occur.

As a result of presenting plain-clothes officers as potential victims of watch theft, 27 men have been caught and charged, with 21 of them now behind bars.

Commander Ben Russell added: “We’ve charged pretty much everybody we’ve arrested here because the evidence is so irrefutable.”

LBC was invited to join plain-clothes officers on a robbery patrol in Central London on Tuesday night where officers pursued one group of thieves who had stolen at least six phones in one night.

The unmarked car circled Oxford Street, Piccadilly and Marble Arch and Mayfair as the group of three young people, wearing balaclavas and dark clothing moved from one area to another on electric bikes.

Police Sergeant Dan Naylor said: "The e-bike thing is a new thing and it’s causing a real headache. They’ll come into the area and do a cluster of snatches and they can do up to 20 snatches in an hour.

"They’re on electric bikes which are very fast, and they can easily change direction.

"It’s almost like we would come into work. They’ll come into central London, commit the crimes, and then go home."

Sergeant Naylor says while the action being taken by officers has helped to bring the number of watch thefts down in Central London, he added that it feels like the value of phones going up has driven another spike in phones being snatched.