London’s wild west of drugs, shoplifting and low public confidence

London’s wild west of drugs, shoplifting and low public confidence

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Former Met officer Chris Hobbs takes a disturbing walk along his local beat in West London.

I didn’t expect a simple visit to a newly opened Poundland shop in West Ealing to provide my first experience of ‘free shopping,’ or ‘thrifting.’ In layman’s terms this is shoplifting but it goes beyond the clandestine theft that police officers and shop staff have dealt with since time immemorial. ‘Thrifting’ has come to mean blatant theft carried out in full view of the public, shop and security staff.

And here it was; two men in full view emptying the contents of shelves into a large rucksack. I began to openly film them and they saw me, stopped and walked past to the exit. As I followed them, I realised that I’d look quite foolish if they presented the goods at checkout, but they didn’t. There was no security, just shouts of protest from a female staff member sitting at one of the checkouts.

That was back in October: Poundland had taken the premises over from a much- missed Wilkinson, but it closed just weeks later citing ‘lease issues.’

On Tuesday, I left the house for what should have been a familiar routine shopping trip walking along one of London’s key arterial roads which runs from Uxbridge to Shepherds Bush. This large section of the Uxbridge Road on which Wilkinsons and then Poundland were situated has now morphed from a vibrant shopping thoroughfare into an area that looks like a scene from the great depression.

Part of the issue is, quite simply, crime driven by drug dealers, drug addicts and street drinkers who commit offences with impunity. The problems faced by local residents were clearly illustrated as I walked along the road that frequently sees police vehicles speeding to calls on ‘blues and two.’

The first incident was a familiar one; a male beggar with a plastic cup was harassing passengers at a bus stop with his more persistent efforts being directed towards women.

Then it was the popular ‘Savers,’ store who have their tills close to the door. As I was being served, the shop assistant serving me moved with commendable speed out of the door. I was in no doubt as to the reason for his exit and followed him out. A large number of toilet rolls and other goods littered the floor; the suspect was making her escape by crossing the road and was a familiar sight. With her pinched face and trademark hoodie, she is an addict known for her persistent forays into shops to steal and equally persistent attempts to sell her stolen goods in certain local pubs and in the streets.

As I captured her making her escape on my phone, I was approached by a male who was an associate of the female and clearly unhappy about me filming her. He announced that he too was a thief and the he would remember my face. He then made a comment about following me around before I responded with words that, if published, would have to be censored by the editor.

A man with two bikes?

I completed my purchase and was thanked by the shop assistant but almost immediately there followed a quite surreal sight; riding along the road on a Lime bike was another known familiar face. Normally the fact that he was riding along the road rather than the pavement would be worthy of note, however on this occasion, balanced precariously across the bike’s handlebars was…..another bike. It didn’t certainly look like a bike obtained from the lower end of the resale market; in fact, it was a sparkling blue colour that suggested that it was new or ‘near new.’

The rider and likely thief was taking a chance; as mentioned above police vehicles can frequently be seen on the Uxbridge Road and the sight of one rider struggling to maintain his balance due to a second bike across his handlebars would have attracted the attention of even the most unenthusiastic, demoralised officer.

And then it was a short walk along to Holland and Barrett; there’s a friendly, helpful shop assistant present on most days and I mentioned the recent Savers incident. She responded by saying that the day before, she had an encounter with a heavily tattooed thief who, whilst not physically assaulting her, was she, stated, ‘threatening and violent.’ Shoplifting, she said, was a constant problem.

The trials and tribulations of Tesco Express staff

There then followed a further walk along the Uxbridge Road to the Tesco Express in West Ealing. Some weeks ago, I tried to enter the shop but found the doors partially closed and a female member of staff blocking the exit. The situation soon became clear in that a male thief was attempting to leave the store with a box full of lager cans. As there was a gap between the two doors, I produced my mobile phone and, in view of the thief, gave a loud running commentary as I dialled 999 at which point he handed the box to the assistant and left the store to be greeted by his two companions who berated him in what I believe was Polish.

A few days ago, I was again in the store and realised that staff had now been equipped with radio communication as I presented my goods to the cashier. She was clearly distracted and told me that other staff members were out chasing thieves. I asked whether I should see if they were OK and she explained that I shouldn’t worry as this happens several times a day. She added that staff shouldn’t be expected to ‘multitask.’

I carried on shopping at the rear of the store, but when I returned to the front, it was clear there had been yet another incident with another frustrated thief. Involved was the same brave lady and she was fortunate in that this incident coincided with the arrival of a Tesco articulated truck complete with the driver and driver’s mate.

Thus, we had a crime that will not be recorded anywhere thus giving credence to the government’s ludicrous assertion that they have ‘cut crime.’

As I neared home, I bumped into a neighbour from an adjacent road. I described my morning and he then stated that he had been in our local Sainsbury’s store recently and watched as two males helped themselves from the shelves before walking out past a statuesque security guard.

Local concerns

The following morning it was a shorter trip to the newsagents. Near a well- known monument stood a local drug dealer holding court. Last week he was cuffed when being stopped and searched. His grin then clearly indicated that the result would be ‘no trace.’ Anxiously watching from a nearby church doorway were three of his customers. Quite what this individual is still doing in the UK post-Brexit is one of the localities mysteries.

It would appear that in addition to the well- run St. Mungo’s hostel and the notorious ‘halfway house,’ on the Uxbridge Road, a property in a quiet, respectable residential street has, according to residents, just been acquired as another ‘halfway house,’ which is already becoming a focal point for addicts and dealers.

Hanwell Junkies Drug den notice edited 002

I walked past a local take-away and engaged in a conversation with the owner and an old friend. Comment soon turned to the current crime situation. The owner stated that just days ago he’d been offered a carrier bag full of confectionary for ‘a tenner.’ Another lady appeared and unaware of our ongoing conversation, complained bitterly about a group of ‘junkies,’ who had gathered in the car park of a local gym

It’s perhaps worth stating at this point that a number of troublesome substance abusers appear to have relocated to the south of our area and there was a very recent meeting between concerned residents and local police.

Discussion moved on to a series of recent, local nighttime shop burglaries which targeted cash held on the premises. Most of those premises had shutters forced to gain entry and the thieves, albeit masked, were captured on CCTV. All the burglaries were reported but there was considerable anger that only one of the victims was visited by the police. He is a revered Sikh gentleman who has owned his hardware shop and served the community for 50 years. He was promised an additional visit by a forensic officer which never materialised. When I spoke to him shortly afterwards, he stated that the police were ‘bloody useless;’ I opted not to reveal my previous profession.

Shortly after the burglaries, two men entered my local pub attempting to exchange bags of coins for notes. They were sent packing by the pub landlord but there was CCTV footage of the suspects. I contacted the Met and was given a reference but no contact was made with the licensee in respect of the CCTV images.

Some days later, I bumped into the neighbourhood officers and mentioned the burglaries. They are not based at a police station and stated that they were only aware of one. It would seem that the system that should have alerted them simply hadn’t.

Local social media is full of incidents and sightings involving addicts, dealers and street drinkers. The above- mentioned dealer is named on a number of posts. It would seem that every resident in the locality is aware of the problem and our close- knit community in and around the Uxbridge Road is unsettled and feels unsafe.

Challenges posed to front line officers

That isn’t to say police are doing nothing. There have been arrests and orders banning individuals from the area. Their support during a recent local carnival was praised with potential troublemakers discreetly dealt with and there is a realisation of the pressures which are adversely affecting the ability of the Met to ‘control the streets.’

These days, front-line officers are also expected to ‘carry’ crimes in addition to being proactive. That is generally regarded as being unfair upon the officers, who work ‘earlies, lates and night,’ and the victims. Officers have to cope with a bureaucratic justice system that is on its knees; a simple arrest at the start of a shift that, in my day, we would have dealt with in an hour or so will now take that unit off the streets for their entire tour of duty.

The number of officers directly responding to calls has dramatically been reduced. In my day, we would have a minimum of 21 vehicles covering the London Borough of Ealing. Now there can be less than half that, with those officers, as stated above, having to work shifts, ‘carry’ crimes and often be abstracted to police public order events such as those organised by Extinction Rebellion and pro-Palestine activists.

The good news, for my particular area is that there are currently no violent street gangs such as those to be found in other parts of London who are linked to drill music, deadly gang rivalries and criminality such as drugs dealing and robbery. They exist to the North, the East and the West and contribute to the perception that the Met haven’t got control of the streets despite the best efforts of officers frustrated by the demands placed upon them and the above-mentioned shambles that exists across the criminal justice system.

The public, however, because of poor police ‘comms,’ are unaware of many issues which impact on policing. In terms of the current issues faced in this area, the view of just about everyone I speak to is that it’s a waste of time reporting ‘routine’ crimes that have occurred, as police simply won’t turn up to investigate. One telling feature in terms of local policing in our area are the Met’s statistics which state that there were just six recorded shoplifting offences during the month of April.

There is an acknowledgement that officers will respond to serious criminality, often bravely, that is happening at that moment in time but overall, the feeling is that the streets are being lost. Successful operations, such as those recently which have seen firearms removed from the streets and arrests made, will have limited impact on a public who can see a deteriorating situation evolve in front of their eyes on a daily basis.

Suffice to say at present, despite some green shoots, that the current system is unfair to both the public and officers who are doing their best in the most difficult of circumstances.

Meanwhile rumours exist that further police stations in London are to be permanently closed only adds to the feeling of gloom.

In addition, a survey carried out by the Police Federation will hardly reassure the law-abiding public in this area or across London and the ‘spinning’ of crime figures will have little impact on a public who will doubtless prefer to trust their own eyes and ears.

The Met’s Commissioner admits that he now has a problem of recruitment and retention. Met officers and indeed those across the country feel that they have been betrayed by politicians from across the political spectrum.

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