Mark Palmer

‘We don’t do burglary’

Mark Palmer told the police who had stolen his Vespa and where they had taken it. He was greeted with complete apathy

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I like my Vespa. In fact, I can't think of anything that has improved the quality of my life in London more in the last couple of years than my slightly retro 49cc 'Chelsea blue' Piaggio ET2. Getting around town takes half as long as it once did by bus, car or taxi; scooters are exempt from Ken's congestion charge; and it is a cheap way to travel. A full tank of petrol costs £5.50 and lasts at least two weeks.

The trouble is that other people like my Vespa, too. Three scumbags have taken it on themselves to steal or vandalise my bike when my back has been turned for more than five minutes – which it was the other Monday.

I had just returned from a quick sortie to the shops, and because I was intending to use the bike again within the hour it never occurred to me to put it in the shed at the side of the house or attach a variety of anti-theft devices to the back and front wheels. The sun was shining, the wistaria was quietly on the climb, and the Roman Catholic priests who live in my street were coming and going just as they do every day of the year.

There was a knock on the door. Two South African decorators with blobs of red paint on their T-shirts told me that they had seen my bike being wheeled down the street by three kids – two white, one black – who were probably no more than 15 years old. They were heading for the Surrey Estate, a Battersea hellhole not far from where a popular young estate agent was shot dead last year. His only offence was to have parked his BMW outside his flat on a Sunday night.

We gave chase. The centre of the estate turned out to be a series of blind alley-ways, which made it perfect for hide-and-seek – as long as you were the one doing the hiding rather than the seeking.

Battersea police station was not far away. I told the South Africans that I would call in and get help, because even if we didn't find the three miscreants we might come across the bike – and, anyway, I didn't fancy poking my nose into the darker recesses of the Surrey Estate without being accompanied by a uniformed officer.

'We don't do that,' said the female duty officer, as she drained her can of Tizer.

'Right,' I said. 'We will continue our search, and if we find any of the boys we'll frogmarch them in here so you can arrest them. I know this sort of thing is pretty far down on your list of priorities, but it matters a hell of a lot to some of us.'

'You can't do that. If you bruise them, their parents will accuse you of assault. You can only detain them.'

'Then we will detain them, and give you a call. By the way, they are the same lot who smashed up my bike a few months ago and who scratched the paintwork of a neighbour's car just before Christmas, and who regularly shout abuse at the priests when asked not to throw their crisp wrappers on the pavement. We all know who they are, and I'm sure you do, too.'

'Never assume you know who they are,' she said. 'Did you actually see them?'

'Not on this occasion, but two decorators did and they described them to me. It's them all right, and the sooner we catch them the better it will be for everyone.'

The decorators and I spent the next hour combing the area. I hated every minute of it. I could almost understand why my cleaning lady, who has lived on the Surrey Estate most of her life, says she never sees a bobby on that particular beat. Apparently, they are too scared. In one refuse shed we found a smartish-looking suitcase which must, until recently, have belonged to an innocent passer-by. In another were the remains of a mountain bike.

Then we found it. It was standing in a dark and dingy outside storage room on the ground floor of one of the tower blocks. The kids had smashed it up, and fingerprints were clearly visible on what remained of the rear box that once housed my helmet. I ran back to the police station and told them the good news. I said that they should come out and make a note of the fingerprints and, in the process, they would get to see where these three rascals stash their stolen goodies.

'We don't do that,' said the same duty officer.

'What do you mean, you don't do that?'

'We don't even visit the scene of a home burglary any more unless there are exceptional circumstances.'

'But don't you want to get the fingerprints so that if and when you catch them you will have some evidence? Don't you want to get a proper description of what they look like from the decorators? Don't you want to be seen to be on the case?'

'It doesn't work like that,' she said. 'But you're welcome to report the crime, and I suggest you do if you intend to claim on your insurance.'

Never mind the insurance. I wasn't finished, and neither were the South Africans. I told the officer that we would leave the bike where it was and hide. We would wait for as long as it took for the criminals to return and then we would spring them. I would then call the police station so that someone could come to arrest them. It wasn't a difficult plan.

'In fact,' I said, 'why don't a couple of you lie in wait for these kids instead of us? At least we won't be accused of taking the law into our own hands.'

'We would have to get a surveillance certificate before we could do something like that,' she said.

So I wheeled my smashed-up Vespa back home and thanked the South African decorators for their help. By now, almost three hours had passed. Three completely wasted hours – unless, of course, you happened to be a Battersea vandal. In which case, you would have had a most enjoyable Monday afternoon: the thrill of the chase, a free crash helmet, some fresh air. And it must have been satisfying to know that the police – or whoever it is who decides how the police should operate in modern Britain – had played their part in providing such good entertainment.