What happened when we spent the night with traffic cops trying to put the brakes on surging car crime
Tyres screech as the marked police car tears around Hockley island, sirens blaring. The high speeds seem to come to an abrupt halt as we pull up at the roadside for an officer to jump out.
He rushes to the boot, grabs a case and runs into the street before deploying a stinger across traffic lights. Almost immediately, there’s a change of plan over the radio; the driver they’re desperately trying to catch has taken a different route.
As quickly as it’s deployed, the spike strip has been collected and the panting PC is back in the passenger seat. It’s 2.49am – and these officers are attempting to stop a ‘baseball bat wielding car thief’ behind the wheel of a ‘stolen’ BMW.
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Under the cover of darkness – and as the rest of the city sleeps – West Midlands Police patrol the streets in an urgent bid to crackdown on car crime gangs and the surging thefts plaguing the region. As night falls, the roads come alive with criminals trying to evade the law; from violent car thieves and drink drivers to drug dealers and insurance fraudsters.
BirminghamLive joined PC Tom Cummings and PC John Cartmell on an overnight patrol as part of Operation Cantil, a force-wide initiative running nightly to deter car crime and catch crooks. The officers react to the latest intelligence, with patrols recently centring around South Birmingham and Solihull – where car crime is rife.
They speak of their successes fighting the “national epidemic”, from catching balaclava-clad criminals in stolen cars with tool kits in the boot to stopping burglars in the act of snapping a victim’s lock.
At present, they’re tracing a number of wanted offenders behind the recent spike in car key burglaries. All are interlinked, but effectively there are two or three groups, the officer adds. The crooks aren’t easy to catch though, with gangs constantly evolving their tactics to evade capture – including switching M.O from car key burglaries to carjackings.
“They’re clearly getting away with it to an extent. Albeit they’re kids, they are switched on and will change their tactics,” PC Cummings admits. As soon as drivers are sighted by police, they’ll swap to cloned licence plates and dump the vehicle.
Often, before the officers can track them down, the car has already been burnt out, hidden for a later sale or dismantled at one of the city’s chop shops.
As the officers prepare to tackle these challenges – and countless more – I’m warned: “Last time BBC Crimewatch came out, they were sick. I took the camera and started filming the cameraman. I hope you don’t mind driving on the wrong side of the road.”
Moments in, as we start racing at up to 130mph down the motorway towards Halesowen for an attempted catalytic converter theft, it’s easy to see how the nausea came about.
“Normally they do it in quick succession – and because they know we’ll be there soon, we have to get there as quickly as possible,” PC Cartmell says, eyes focused the blue-lit road ahead. At the start of the year, police were appealing for information after a surge in the thefts of these parts in Acocks Green and Tyseley.
As they scope out the area, an attempted theft of an Audi RS3 comes in through the radio from Stratford-Upon-Avon. With it taking place within the last half an hour, we divert straight to the scene.
Asked for hotspot areas for car crime, PC Cummings replies: “Everywhere that’s got nice cars. Solihull gets targeted quite a lot.
“Since people buy nice cars on finance, and PCP, they’re everywhere and more affordable.”
Car key burglaries can see criminals target anything from high-performance Audis to commit further crimes, to Ford Fiestas for blending in on the roads, they add.
PC Cartmell pitches in from the driver’s seat: “People will steal anything these days, from opportunists to people who are quite good at burgling houses, to those who have the equipment.”
This ‘equipment’ includes everything from angle grinders to mole grips and screwdrivers, with drivers occasionally caught with such toolsets in their boots. Stopping car criminals is a “priority”, they add.
But it’s not all down to police – the justice that follows is key. Though often, officers are left feeling ‘let down’ by the punishments handed out.
“For the risks, we undertake in trying to take criminals off the streets, the courts let us down sometimes. They don’t reflect the risks they pose to people,” reflects the driver.
“Sometimes I just stop looking at the results. Sometimes it feels like nobody’s on our side.”
Though both officers are trained to drive at an advanced level, they are chasing criminals who are desperate to escape – at whatever cost. “You have to try and stay one step ahead of them,” he adds, highlighting the ever-present dangers.
A drug-dealing report comes in, but they spot another motorist ahead, speeding and driving on the wrong side of a blind bridge. Sirens on and blue lights flashing behind, the driver pulls up. Both driver and passenger scramble to hop into the backseat.
But nothing gets past the officers, who spot the manoeuvre before demanding both get out of the car. Handcuffs are placed on the occupants and the car is searched.
After digging, they find the driver has no licence or insurance – so the luxury motor is seized and the pair are forced to walk. The legitimate driver will have to take his licence to the impound and pay £150 to get it back.
My ears prick up at the word machete over the radio, as PC Cartmell replies: “You hear that word so much now, you’re desensitised to it. You never know what you’re going to come across.”
With a special interest in ‘cannabis breaks’, PC Cummings has locked up some “really violent, horrible offenders,” he says. A man was recently stabbed with a screwdriver in one violent incident, and in another attack, a JustEat rider was knifed for his bike.
The officers stop to listen to the radio – a BMW has just been stolen across the border. A prolific thief driving around in a Volkswagen Golf, who is already hot on their radar, is believed to have snatched the motor from Redditch.
“He’s been nicking loads of cars from West Mercia area”, the officers explain, adding that he’s likely working with two other accomplices.
It’s 1.20am and we’re heading full speed towards the Worcestershire border in a desperate bid to stop him as he flees towards his Birmingham home. West Mercia Police traffic officers are also closing off potential routes to catch him in the act.
Asked how he’s managed to get away with so many thefts, PC Cummings replies: “He’ll drive like a maniac. We have had to abandon the chase.”
Hearing his possible route over the radio, the officers station themselves at the Navigation Inn roundabout in Kings Norton. It’s a split second decision they make together, but it could mean the difference between stopping his crime spree in its tracks and leaving him free to strike again.
Helicopters are coming out. It’s the safest way to catch the criminals, but the force has limited resources. “We’ve got half traffic department looking for them,” one of them states. We drive around Rednal and West Heath in search of the driver, but after half an hour, it appears he’s hidden for the night.
“They see a BMW or marked car and they’re out of sight,” says PC Cummings, “they drop it somewhere they don’t think we’ll look or straight to a chop shop.”
En route to jobs in the early hours of the morning, it feels like the officers stop every suspicious driver they spot. They check for insurance and licences to ensure the cars aren’t being driven away by thieves. Other speeding motorists are urged to slow down – or face a fine and licence points.
The biggest incident of the night comes after a 2.45am radio communication – the theft of a Range Rover from the day before.
“A BMW 4 series involved, armed with baseball bats during commission of offence,” a voice from the other end of the radio beckons officers. We speed towards the Birmingham city centre location.
After PC Cummings deploys and collects a stinger from a busy central road within minutes, the driver is tracked down and boxed in by a number of officers who received the same alert.
A dog handler is also at the scene as both the driver and passenger are handcuffed and escorted into the back of police cars. It transpires the ‘suspects’ are innocent, with the earlier intelligence likely linked to a cloned plate.
The frustrated members of the public are angry, and tell the officers to “go catch burglars and rapists”. PC Cartmell turns to explain: “On face value, these people are baseball wielding car thieves and turns out it’s the opposite.
“You do get sick of people treating you like garbage.”
When all falls quiet on the radio, the officers start scouring the streets and using the ANPR system to clock stolen cars. “No one would know we looked at that Volvo- – which could’ve been somebody’s car,” they explain as we drive around a hotspot area in search of dumped cars.
“You don’t know how much crime we deter. There’s 16 of us all in that area. You might come in that area the following morning – and there’s been no crime.
“The public don’t realise where we are.”
Have you been affected by car crime? You can get in touch by emailing [email protected]