My night undercover with the Met’s thief hunters, pursuing e-bikes as six phones are stolen, writes Fraser Knight

17 January 2024, 11:13 | Updated: 17 January 2024, 12:27

My night undercover with the Met’s thief hunters, pursuing e-bikes as six phones are stolen, writes Fraser Knight
My night undercover with the Met’s thief hunters, pursuing e-bikes as six phones are stolen, writes Fraser Knight. Picture: Alamy/LBC
Fraser Knight

By Fraser Knight

Within minutes of meeting Sergeant Dan Naylor at Charing Cross police station, there was a call on the radio to say a group of three people had snatched multiple phones on Oxford Street.

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As a plain clothes cop, he and his team patrol the streets of Central London in their unmarked cars every day, at the times when they know robberies are most likely to happen.

This was a Tuesday night. It wasn’t long after 6pm. And straight away our driver, PC Gemel Pacquette, started to weave his way through the traffic towards Tottenham Court Road.

“They’re usually quite young lads - 16 to 20 years old - and they’ll come into the area and do a cluster of snatches,” Sergeant Naylor told me. “They can do up to 20 within an hour.”

“It’s almost like we would come into work, they’ll come into Central London to commit the crimes and go home - they won’t be here for long.”

The criminals who work these streets are alert.

They’re looking at people’s wrists, valuing their watches before they swoop in to steal them.

They know when the police are onto them, stealing several phones in short bursts and using electric bikes to speed off.

It all happened so quickly. Five or six phones were reported missing with the only description of the suspects being male, dressed in black, wearing balaclavas and mounted on e-bikes.

Through the two-hour shift, our car was surrounded by people I thought matched that description - delivery drivers, commuters, innocent members of the public - all with their faces covered (it was near freezing).

But years of doing work like this, Sergeant Naylor says, means he knows what he’s looking for.

“There’s a lot of the same faces about and there’s definitely groups there that we know about but for a lot of them we don’t have addresses, they don’t use social media or banks and they move from house to house.”

He said: “One person we arrested just before Christmas, he’d done three high-value snatches of over £60,000 watches and within the six weeks that he was wanted for he’d moved from three addresses all over London, so trying to locate them is not always easy.”

As the radio went quiet and it was thought the group of three who’d wreaked havoc on Oxford Street had left to go home with their haul, we started to head towards Knightsbridge - a more affluent part of Central London.

At around 7pm, the team told me it was a prime target for watch thieves to pounce on people as they left expensive restaurants.

But there was another call. The phone snatchers had struck again - at Marble Arch.

The blue lights went on. The sirens blared.

PC Gemel Pacquette skilfully forced his way through the gridlocked traffic back towards Oxford Street, constantly trying to second guess where the group would go to next after having made their move.

But the e-bikes got the better of them. The robbers had vanished.

“The e-bikes thing is definitely a new thing,” Sergeant Naylor said. “They’ve been around for the last 18 months.

“When you see one of them, you’ll know - they’ve got the big wheels and they’re very fast.”

The Commissioner of the Met Police, Sir Mark Rowley, praised his undercover officers for the work they do - including their new tactic of using seized watches from criminals to lure in thieves around Soho.

We’re told it’s helped to reduce the number of watch thefts in the area.

But during his Call the Commissioner slot on LBC, Sir Mark shared concerns that the use of e-bikes is making it harder to catch other offenders in the act.

“It’s very difficult. They buy certain types of e-bikes that they then delimit, it’s quite easy and they can get up to 50 or 60 miles an hour,” he said.

“They’re tearing down alleyways escaping and you can’t do a pursuit in that context.

“We do have certain tactics to nudge people off bikes with cars but they are quite dangerous and difficult and officers are very cautious about using them.

“And officers do sometimes fear they’re going to be investigated for using those tactics even though that’s what we train them to do and what we need them to do.”

The job of these undercover officers is relentless and takes a lot of skill.

They don’t always catch the criminals when they’d like to - and finding them afterwards is even harder.

But day after day they return here, knowing more thefts will happen and hoping that they’ll be able to prevent other people going through the trauma and misery of having expensive possessions snatched from their hands.


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