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Common Tread

A wave of scooter crime rattles London

Dec 29, 2017

My sister has lived in London for decades. She and her husband own a row house in a neighborhood that, whenever I’ve visited, has seemed very upscale and safe. But this summer, she was shocked when a man was stabbed and murdered for his Rolex, just a few blocks from her house. The robber escaped on the back of a scooter ridden by an accomplice.

London’s murder rate would make it the envy of any big U.S. city, so that was a shocking crime. But it was hardly an isolated incident. My sister’s seriously considering leaving the city, an idea that was unthinkable until recently. This, all because of teenaged thugs on scooters.

“Scooter crime,” particularly in London, has increased dramatically over the last few years, according to London’s Metropolitan Police Service (aka “the Met”). In the year ending July 1, 2017, about 15,000 scooters were stolen in the British capital — that’s an increase of 50 percent since 2014. Over the same period, the number of scooter-aided thefts increased from about 1,000 to 15,000!

scooter robbery in London
Gangs rob pedestrians or commit smash-and-grab robberies of stores, like this one, and then use their stolen scooters to make their getaway. Image from London Metropolitan Police CCTV video.

What do these thefts look like? Gangs of young criminals steal scooters parked in the street, often in working-class neighborhoods. Then one rider and one pillion (we call them passengers over here) use the scooter to stalk victims. The crimes have occurred across London, but they’re particularly common in neighborhoods like the West End, where pedestrians are well heeled.

They’ll often ride right up on the sidewalk and just grab people’s mobile phones without stopping. But high-profile cases involve strong-arm robberies, in which victims are threatened or attacked with knives, hammers, or machetes and relieved of wallets, watches, and other valuables. Sometimes, a group of scooters converge on a high-end shop (jewelers and Apple stores have been recent targets) and ransack it.

In one particularly high-profile case last summer, two teenagers sprayed acid on victims in five separate attacks on a single night. Twice, they stole or attempted to steal other riders’ mopeds. The other three were straight-up robberies.

Yes, acid. To add insult to injury, one of the victims of that crime spree was a scooter dealer. David Rosenberg was attacked while riding home from his job as the general manager of Scootech, a prominent Piaggio dealership. Luckily, Rosenberg was wearing a full-face helmet and glasses. He escaped after a short chase, raced home to shower, and was later treated in hospital for chemical burns to his face and neck.

A 32-year-old pizza delivery rider named Muhammed Nawshad Kamal, originally from Bangladesh, was not so lucky. He was blinded and also inhaled acid, leaving him unconscious and in critical condition.

Those two punks were arrested, but usually the perps escape because, as we all know, scooters are a great way to move through congested streets. And, at least through the summer, escape was a near-certainty because the police often decide the risk of a fleeing suspect being injured outweighs the severity of the crime they’ve committed. The BBC has reported that criminals sometimes remove their helmets if pursued, because they believe doing so further inhibits police pursuit.

The suddenness and scale of the crime wave initially seemed to take both the authorities and the general population by surprise. The government predictably responded by passing laws about carrying acid without some good (presumably occupational) reason. They looked at making sulfuric acid, which was the specific chemical used in some attacks, a controlled substance. London considered enacting municipal laws against riding two-up.

Meanwhile the people most up in arms about scooter crime are scooter riders and other motorcyclists. Their bikes are getting stolen, either when parked or in violent bike-jackings. And the general populace is afraid of anyone on a scooter. Food delivery riders led a massive ride-in protest in London’s Parliament Square last July. They brought traffic to a halt in the hopes of getting action from the UK government.

Police restricted in pursuing suspects

A bike-trader friend of mine forwards me a weekly news summary from British Dealer News, and scooter crime has been a recurring theme throughout 2017. Scarcely a week has gone by without another horror story, an anguished editorial, or suggestion about what can be done. The magazine recently ran a guest editorial by an ex-motorcycle cop who wrote about the legal risks British cops take when choosing to pursue scooter criminals.

"In effect, officers pursuing criminals leave themselves wide open to prosecution for dangerous driving if they pursue criminals who are driving dangerously, on the principle that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

"Officers do not have any special police driving license, so if convicted they get points on the same license as you and I for doing their job and driving in a fashion they would never do in their own cars. The result is that their own insurance is increased as insurance companies do not take into account the circumstances in which points are accrued.

"As if this weren’t enough, any officers convicted of a criminal offence such as dangerous driving or assault would be liable for dismissal. In this instance, any fine imposed by the court would be insignificant compared with the loss of earnings and pension rights that could ultimately amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds."

No wonder criminals aren’t usually chased. And, since most of the scooter criminals are juveniles, even if they are caught, British courts are loath to imprison them.

Motorcycle dealers and industry affected, too

All this lands in a year that would have been disastrous for UK dealers even without scooter crime. Across all categories, new-bike sales were down more than 15 percent for the first three quarters of 2017. But scooter sales have been hit even harder — sales are down more than 26 percent. And sales of all two-wheelers in the 51-125 cc range are down over 33 percent.

In a Skype interview, BDN’s editor Paul Smith told me that dealers believe the crime wave’s made a bad year worse.

“It’s hard to get definitive figures on London sales,” Smith told me, “because the [Motorcycle Industry] Association doesn’t break them down that way for us. But, there’s no question that it has damaged scooter sales, particularly in London.”

Smith, however, is cautiously optimistic. “I think the acid attacks brought it to a head,” he told me. “The government seem to have ‘encouraged,’ shall we say, the Met and there have been a couple of initiatives. They’ve got some special BMW bikes that they’re going to use to pursue suspects, which they weren’t prepared to do before.”

Indeed, the Met has issued some clarifications of pursuit rules, and set up four BMW F 700 GS scamblers for the express purpose of chasing scooter-mounted perps; the BMW twins are presumably well suited to jumping curbs and racing through the potholed alleyways and “rat runs” the thieves use in their escapes.

Met police motorcycles
Police have deployed motorcycles of their own to fight scooter crime. London Metropolitan Police photo.

The cops’ strategies also involve staking out bait bikes and using real time video intelligence to spot and interdict scooter criminals on their way to commit crimes in posh neighborhoods. They’ve also issued special units with tire-destroying “stinger” devices that function like a spiked belt, but which are remote controlled, so officers are not put at risk when deploying them.

Even officers who aren’t trained in pursuit have been issued a crime-fighting weapon. “DNA spray” is an invisible fluorescent dye that is hard to wash off. Some criminals have been charged with crimes later, when they’ve been seen to glow under UV light.

Crooks spray acid, cops spray invisible dye; that could seem hopelessly lopsided, but stats coming out of the Met’s Scotland Yard HQ suggest that scooter crime’s down from a midsummer peak. Scotland Yard told the London Evening Standard that in early December criminals on scooters committed about 25 robberies a week in the Westminster district, down from more than 100 a week in the summer.

Are police efforts working or is it just the cold weather?

One of the people who is not impressed is Karen Neill, a motorcycle mechanic and the owner of Zenith Motorcycles. Neill was briefly famous in British motorcycle circles last summer when she and one of her employees made a video of her standing up to a couple of would-be thieves who were brazenly trying to steal a bike that belonged to a Zenith customer.

Karen Neill
Karen Neill owns and operates the only female-owned-and-managed motorcycle repair shop in the UK. Her customers, she says, “are terrified” of being bike-jacked. Many have given up riding but thousands of Londoners earn their living delivering food by scooter. Photo provided by Karen Neill.

Karen told me that as far as she’s concerned, the police are taking credit for an early winter. There’s already been snow over most of Britain, and crooks don’t like riding in freezing weather any more than the rest of us.

“It’s just the cold weather that’s put the criminals off,” she told me. “At the moment it’s relatively safe, but as soon as it warms up, [scooter crime] will start back up again.”

“Many of my customers have stopped riding. If they are riding, they’re terrified,” she said by way of explaining how it’s hurt her business.

“A lot of people are carrying spanners and other things to defend themselves with,” she added.  “Which in this country, you could face prosecution if you use unreasonable force. And even if you use reasonable force the person could counter-claim against you for assault, or grievous bodily harm. If you’re stopped by the police, they say you’re carrying a weapon.”

Although Londoners are frustrated with the situation, few of them blame the Metropolitan Police Service, which enjoys a high level of public regard. People are more inclined to blame the government for cutting police budgets than they are to blame the police themselves.

“We need more police on street,” Karen told me. As far as she’s concerned, the Met adding a few BMW scramblers is a nice touch, but they’re spread thin over metropolitan London’s 13.6 million residents. “It’s common knowledge that London lacks suitably trained police officers to deal with this — who are trained and able to pursue. We need resources from the government to fund them.”

“And, we need lawmakers to do their part,” she concluded. “It’s all well for the police to catch them, but if the law doesn’t sentence them, or if the sentence for the crime isn’t stiff enough, the laws need to be changed. The police can only do so much; it’s down to judges and CPS. If they’re ‘under-18s,’ they’re getting a slap on the wrist, a suspended sentence and within a couple of days they’re back on the street to reoffend.”

Every Briton uses the initials “CPS” as shorthand for Crown Prosecution Service, the same way Americans say “DA” instead of District Attorney. But the joke among British cops is that CPS really stands for “Criminal Protection Service.”

In the last couple of months there have been a few aggressive prosecutions of scooter criminals, resulting in jail terms of five years or more. When the weather warms up, Londoners will see whether the cops and prosecutors have really brought scooter crime under control.