London police fight surge of street crime

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

LONDON -- The police patrol had just begun when the officers jumped from their van and cornered three teen-agers on a busy street in central London.

A search found the boys wearing two sets of clothes -- as muggers sometimes do so they can quickly alter their appearance. One of the boys had two cell phones in his pocket, and another held an unusually large amount of cash.

They were found near the private Jewish Free School, where many students have been mugged, often for their mobile phones, but the youths were defiant under questioning.

"You don't need to know how I got here," said one wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap and silver earrings. "You didn't need to stop me. I don't want to talk to you."

With no evidence to tie the boys to a crime, the police had to let them go. But first the officers turned the boys toward surveillance cameras along the main thoroughfare in Camden Borough and took photos of them to keep at the local station.

Muggings and other street crimes have soared in London and elsewhere in Britain, leaving many citizens anxious and bringing orders from the national government to crack down. Scotland Yard has officers on special patrols in nine areas of London where street crime is worst.

One of those is Camden, which is an odd mix of middle-class neighborhoods and rough "hot spots" known for prostitutes, muggers, drug dealers, homeless people and gangs. Also getting special attention are several impoverished boroughs as well as Westminster, the central area where tourists flock to see Big Ben, Parliament and Buckingham Palace.

Some British officials say crime has increased so sharply that pedestrians are more likely to be mugged here than in New York. In September-November, 19,248 robberies were reported in London, more than double the same period the previous year. Many of those crimes resulted from a wave of cell phone thefts.

"There has been a remarkable increase in street crime and gun-related crime in London, unlike anything I think we've seen in the past," Metropolitan Police Commander Robert Quick said in an interview.

Visit from Guiliani

When former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani visited in February to receive an honorary knighthood, he was praised for his zero tolerance policies that slashed crime by 52 percent in a city where people had been afraid to walk the streets.

London's growing lawlessness has produced a torrent of front-page headlines chronicling assaults, carjackings, killings and gang warfare.

In addition to the leap in robberies, gun crime -- often involving gangs -- rose about 50 percent in the last year in a city where such weapons are still rare. Burglaries increased 3.6 percent, and crimes involving automobiles such as carjackings rose 3.8 percent.

The figures do not mean London has lost its standing as a relatively safe city by world standards. For instance, 26 murders were recorded in January, compared to 11 in Washington, which has less than one-tenth the population of Britain's capital.

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