Friday, August 24, 2007

Caught on camera

St Bartholemew's Day began, not only with sunshine, but the discovery of a bundle of fresh green beans on the doorstep, from a dear friend who's a genius with gardens. I went into church early to help out in the Tea Room, because several of the Friday team were going to be missing. However, several others had stepped into the gap, so I was able to get on with preparing the Sunday bulletin and a sermon. After Mass I popped up for a cup of tea to be greeted with quiet excitement by two of our volunteers. "He's here", they said. I knew whom they meant - a certain visitor who has been in and out of the building on several occasions uniquely within minutes either side of a handbag theft. I turned around and recognised him, as he had spoken to me several times - once to complain angrily when someone else recognised him as our suspect, and told him to shove off. He saw me looking, and got up and came over and started complaining loudly (the tea room was full) about the way he was being treated. The two women behind me were saying: "It's no good, we know who you are and what you're up to." One time had followed her surreptitiously into the Tea Room when it was empty, but then she'd immediately left, locking behind her, unaware that he'd locked him in. He'd made a big fuss about that, and she was shocked to realise that he could have attacked her in an empty room. (We've improved security quite a bit since then.) As they talked,he got angrier, so I asked him quietly to leave a couple of times, and eventually he went off down the stairs, cursing his ill-luck.

At this moment, I realised I had my trusty camera in my top pocket, fished it out and followed him. None of the CCTV images we had of him around at the time of thefts were high quality, so I thought I'd help myself. He tried to shut an inner door to stop me following him outside, but nevertheless I pursued him into the street calling out "Come on then, let's have a picture so that we can eliminate you from our enquiries, if you say you're innocent." As we left the gate, one of our female regulars saw me and crossed the street to accost me in hot pursuit, with my quarry turning round and hurling abuse at me. The another man appeared - it was of one of the fishmongers from Ashtons in the market, on his breaktime. He thought I was pursuing this guy because the female regular, who'd come from another direction, had had her handbag pinched (unusually, she never carries a bag of any kind, and so stands out in a crowd of women), and there would have been a fight if I hadn't been able to de-fuse the situation. Nevertheless, I got a perfect photo, and according to our crime prevention officer, the subject is for certain the man we thought he was. A drug addict, a skilled thief, well known to the police.

Now he knows we know him and have his picture, maybe he'll be just a little deterred from trying to sneak in and take some other vulnernable person by surprise, with his charming smile and relaxed attitude. As I returned to church, a guy who was begging by the gate (another of our regulars, also a druggie, though curiously he reads novels while there is a gap in pedestrian traffic), asked me what was going on. When I told him he said. "Oh him, yes, know him from prison. Always a loudmouth he is when there's trouble around." So he's been to gaol for theft and drugs - we learned it on the street, even before the police informed us.

Today, he made a couple of mistakes - though not enough to get caught red handed. Firstly, he came in just four weeks to the day after his last visit, and so was much easier to remember by workers on duty. Secondly, he made the first move denying that he was up to no good when all anyone had done was glance at him. Possibly, he was all tensed up because street drugs are currently in short supply, due to a spate of dealer arrests. Thus they are more expensive, and that means more risk required to steal enough cash to buy drugs with. What a life to lead. And so much misery caused to others as a result.

When I got home, I emailed the photo to the lady who rang me after seeing the 'Echo' article, a worshipper at St John's Canton where there has been a series of identical thefts by a man of his description, good at blending in and making himself inconspicuous, then striking when people are relaxed. If we can prevent further thefts, deter him from thinking we're such an easy target, all well and good.

In quieter moments, when I stop laughing to myself at my boldness in pulling out the camera and seeing him off, I think - what if he'd pulled a knife or a gun? What if he comes back for vengeance? It's also possible I guess that some legalist worm will crawl out and accuse me of some sophisticated crime against 'human rights', privacy violation, or aggression with a camera. Nothing is straightforward any longer. The police always advise: "Don't do anything, just call us." Well, that way, too many minor criminals get away with things, cause a lot of suffering, and huge expense to others. There's no such thing as life without risk. Becoming indifferent to lawlessness of a relatively minor kind, opens the way chaos and anarchy, and more suffering.

Having said that, even more than wanting to see this guy caught and punished, I would much rather see him confronted with a much more positive alternative - therapy, rehabilitation and worthwhile work that will turn him away from stealing in support of his addiction. It's just terrible to realise how limited are the resources to achieve this. And as we fail on the cure, we also fail in prevention - another bumper heroin crop will be harvested from the flowers that are farmed under the noses of our troops fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan this summer.

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