Simon Carr's Week

To Catch a Thief
Jan. 24 2002 2:36 PM

Simon Carr's Week

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I think my vacuum cleaner's been stolen. The man came round to fix it, but took it away, saying it was a bigger job than could be done on site. He didn't bring it back. He still hasn't brought it back, three weeks later. At first he answered my calls, saying he'd be bringing it back that afternoon. Then he started saying it would be the following afternoon. Then he stopped answering the phone. After a surprise hit (I dialled 141 to conceal my identity), he stopped answering the phone at all. There was one more hit, by ringing him from a friend's phone, but now he's fully secure behind his electronic barricades. It's galling having your property stolen when you've got the phone number of the thief. The police won't do anything, obviously. It's not a theft unless he informs me that he is permanently depriving me of my property (maybe there are forms he'd have to fill out). If I had his address, I could go round there, maybe even taking some large, rugby-playing friend. But then anything I did to get the appliance back would result in my being prosecuted—for forcing an entry, or threatening behaviour, or disturbing the peace, or creating a nuisance. Then, too, his neighbours would laugh at me and shove me off the doorstep and offer to smash my face in. By some social asymmetry, they wouldn't be prosecuted for threatening behaviour or assault, nor would the repairman ever be prosecuted for theft.

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It's a very fraught business, taking things into your own hands. But there are things that could be done. While there are no physical details on the card he pushed through my door, you can buy a CD of national phone numbers that offers a reverse search facility that tells you the address of any landline. But I think that's illegal, under the data protection act, and would result in a fine, maybe even a jail sentence. Perhaps the TV script I've written on a similar subject has jaundiced me. It concerns a respectable 58-year-old woman who walks into her house as it is being burgled. The burglars are polite, treat her as a "customer", and are careful with the goods (they wrap them and put them into boxes for the removal van outside). She phones the police, but they can't send anyone round to arrest the thieves because of resource constraints. They do, however, have immediate access to a Victim Support Officer. This constable is a severely disabled officer who solicits support from the victim and ends up counselling the thieves (their van is stolen while the burglary continues). The only person to be prosecuted, obviously, is the 58-year-old woman.

There is a growing sense that the compact between the police and the bourgeoisie is breaking down. The owner of the cab firm we use has her own story on this theme. She was inspected, on the motorway, by an unmarked car pulling up alongside her and then shadowing her for some miles. A letter arrived in the post informing her that her designer licence plates were illegal. The numbers were a quarter-inch too far apart. She was told to change them or face a substantial fine. Angie, the owner of the cab firm, phoned the police station up to complain.

The desk sergeant informed her that it was a project run personally by the officer who had signed the letter. The officer had collected 800 similar examples of faulty licence plates and was submitting his research to DVLC (the automobile licensing authority). "This is a grotesque waste of police time!" Angie said.

"No, Madam," the sergeant said, gravely. "The officer is doing it in his spare time."

It's not hard to see where respect for the police is heading.

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