Breaking and entering: A burglar's-eye view of St Albans
PUBLISHED: 09:27 14 February 2018 | UPDATED: 09:53 19 February 2018
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Richard Burton took to the streets of St Albans with two experts to find out what makes a property appealing to criminals - and the small steps we can take to help protect our homes
Shortly after 7pm as unsuspecting families were putting their children to bed or settling down in front of the TV, two cars pulled unnoticed into a pub car park on Hatfield Road.
In the first were two men, both experts in the murky world of breaking and entering. In the other, was their ‘client’ – a man keen to know how it’s done.
A flash of headlights signaled their arrival, and after brief handshakes, they set off on foot into the drizzly evening, making their way through nearby streets, unnoticed but for the backward glance of a lone jogger.
Occasionally, they would pause at the end of a driveway, examining and comparing before moving on. 90 minutes later, they were back in the pub, this time swapping notes: the client satisfied he had a pretty firm idea of which homes he would target, how he would go about it, when and with what.
To be honest, anyone witnessing such suspicious behaviour would have done the neighbours a favour by tipping off the police. So, a confession:
I was the client, a former crime reporter who has spent years talking to criminals, victims and watching such scenarios played out in courtrooms. The mentors were a pair much closer to the action: Dave Weir, a St Albans-based sergeant in the Metropolitan Police and Paul Rosenthal who runs one of the city’s best-known security companies.
We were there because, frankly, it’s pretty much what most of us are talking about, given the recent spate of break-ins cross the district.
Standing on Elm Drive, yards from the scene of one such burglary only a few days earlier, I did indeed feel just a bit conspicuous, loitering at that time of the evening.
Then again, I was forgetting: burglars tend to keep office hours. A house is more likely to be targeted between nine and five when people are out than at home at night, alarmed and vigilant.
Even so, under blinking streetlights and in near-deserted streets flanked by rows of 1930s bungalows and imposing, gabled-ended semis, I can’t shake the image of a shadowy figure skulking in the half-light, creeping in under the cover of darkness.
“It doesn’t need to be dark. There’s plenty of cover down the side of that house once you get over the fence,” said Dave, looking down into Hazelwood Drive. Really? The fence was a sturdy-looking 6ft and hung between concrete pillars.
“Not a problem for someone young and fit,” said Dave. “And the concrete posts only make them more solid. Ideally, it’d have a trellis on top, something that would get in the way or snap under their weight and make a noise.”
Paul agreed. “They’d want to get over it quickly and come in from the rear. The sound would be muffled and wouldn’t travel well from there, they’d be working fairly unencumbered.”
So, what - they’d just jemmy a conservatory door? “Not necessarily,” said Dave. “A long-lever, flat-head screwdriver would do just as well on a uPVC frame. It’s part of the burglar’s toolbox these days. They’re effective and easily concealed under a coat.”
A street away, there was a three-bed semi in darkness behind scaffolding and clearly empty. Not an obvious target, I’d have thought, given it had probably been cleared for a refurb.
Yes, apart from the chance of grabbing a few tools that could be easily traded down the pub. I say traded - these aren’t people with an eye on a deal. An expensive drill or circular saw would easily go for a fiver if it meant a drugs habit was fed.
But both men were more concerned about how vulnerable it left the house next door. The scaffold gave access to a pair of side-by-side flat roof garages - “those built with proper roof joists and made to hold a man’s weight,” said Dave. From there, a deep side window opening on to the landing would be an easy way in.
I noticed there was a car on the drive. Paul had lost count of the times people had left their car keys on a hook by the door or in a bowl within easy reach. What’s the alternative? Take them upstairs with you?
Dave was reluctant to advise either way as, clearly, most burglars are opportunists and only interested in quick routes in and out with whatever they can grab in an instant.
Some may feel happier knowing the keys to their Ferrari are under the pillow, others may take the view they don’t want any incentive for a burglar to come upstairs looking.
Dave looked at the car as a burglar might. “It’s a people carrier. Blacked-out windows in the rear. It suggests children, which means it’ll probably be used for a school run,” said Dave. “In which case, they’d probably watch and wait for it to leave.
“A typical opportunist will look along the street and notice things like that. They’ll look at a row of houses and say ‘that’s got an alarm. That’s got a camera, I’ll give those a miss’. They’re all forms of deterrent and all help.”
“Like this drive,” Paul cut in. “Lots of gravel. It’s all noise and something else for them to think about.”
And the wheelie bins lined out front? “Exactly. Easy to drag back and climb on to get over that side gate.”
And if the alarm is a fake? One of those dummy cases you can get for a fiver online? “They wouldn’t want to run the risk of it not being,” said Dave. “It’s not worth it. They’d just move on to the next one. It’s not unusual for a gang to do two or three at a time in streets like these, if there was the opportunity.”
By streets like these, he was talking about quiet, tree-lined avenues with a range of property layouts, lots of shadowy areas and limited “traffic” - people passing by and likely to notice.
But everything he said rang true. Statistically, homes with no security are five times more likely to be burgled than those with even the most basic measures, according to the Home Office.
Latest crime figures from the Office of National Statistics show there were 501 home burglaries and 322 more classed as “non-domestic” in the area in the 12 months September last year.
That’s a massive 27 per cent rise on 2017, aided by attacks on crime “hotspots” that reach beyond the city into areas such as London Colney and Harpenden where the local Neighbourhood Watch’s Owl messaging service reports such chance-your-arm raids week-in-week-out, even descending into the use of inappropriate euphemism by describing those that leave homes trashed as “untidy”.
Having said that, there’s also a view that recognises the so-called “tidy” raid as a cynical tactic. Anyone who returns home and doesn’t immediately realise they’ve been broken into is unlikely to report it immediately and, unwittingly compromise, forensic evidence.
Not that it’s much comfort, but Hertfordshire still has one of the lowest levels of recorded crime in the country, which is just as well given the sort of budget cuts all local police forces have suffered in recent years. Cuts which only recently prompted suggestions that certain low-level offences – those seen as having little chance of a conviction – may not even be investigated at all.
To add insult to injury, Privilege, the insurance company behind the ‘You don’t have to be posh’ TV ads with Joanna Lumley last year revealed St Albans as second in the country when it came to the average value of possessions stolen - £4,892, only £288 behind worst-hit Litchield, Staffordshire.
A sobering thought. Back on the streets Paul, whose company, Amthal Fire and Security, works with both commercial and residential clients, is talking technology. The more savvy burglar, he’s telling me, will know the sensors are fitted on the ground floor so try their arm at “getting a leg up” and entering via an upstairs window so it’s worth putting one on the landing.
All well and good but you’d be surprised how many people forget – or simply become complacent and don’t bother - to set them.
So, the nightmare scenario: a noise wakes you and you come face to face with a real intruder on the landing. It’s one I’ve seen re-enacted many times before crown court juries.
I’ll spare the worst of the details but, by and large, the sort of petty opportunist we’re most likely to be looking at will only have one thing in mind – to get in and get out as fast as they can and not run the risk of getting caught.
Police advice is clear on this. Think hard before confronting. Dave, who was off-duty advising more as a neighbour than anything else, echoes that, telling me “unless you’re mixed martial artist, just be aware, you just don’t know what you’re going to be faced with”. But he doesn’t disagree that a sudden noise or signs of movement are likely to hasten their departure in most cases.
And the chances of getting your belongings back? I’d say, pretty remote, given that of all the recent burglaries currently listed for the key towns in the area, the number than resulted in court appearances is currently numbering around six per cent.
It’s not as if they’re likely to be known to the local CID either. Criminal demographics have changed significantly since the days when a local bobby would instinctively know which collars to feel. One reformed villain who left Bedford prison a few years ago to spend his time more usefully dissuading youngsters told me: “We had this rule - never in your own back yard” but admitted it had been routine to swap tips with their pals on where the best pickings were.
These days, it wouldn’t be unusual to find your jewellery, laptop and video camera disappearing up the M1 and changing hands for the price of the petrol it took to get back to the Midlands while you dig out the receipts for an insurance claim worth thousands.
“Things have changed a lot in the past 20 years,” said Dave. “I’ve known them do 150 miles in a day. They do tend to travel if they think it’ll be worth their while. And it’s not that hard, especially if they can pick up a car for something like £500.”
True. And that’s always assuming no-one had left their keys on a hook by the door to help them on their way.
So, you’ve been burgled – what next?
Nine things likely to happen once you’ve dialed 999.
1. Police do endeavor to respond to calls as soon as they can. A uniformed officer, detective or sometimes both – will do an initial assessment and give advice.
2. All good insurers have access to 24-hour tradesmen who will respond pretty much instantly to board the place up ahead of any proper repairs.
3. A scenes of crime officer - SOCO in police terms – will follow up, often in the morning if the break-in was discovered late at night – and carry out a detailed forensic search for clues.
4. A crime report will be created, an officer will be appointed to oversee it and you will be given a crime reference number to quote when dealing with insurers.
5. Your neighbours may well be visited, particularly those either side and opposite, in the hunt for witnesses.
6. And do expect a crime prevention visit – you and your neighbours can well expect some home security advice in the aftermath.
7. Your details will be passed to the Victim Care Centre, known in Hertfordshire as Beacon, who will then act as a point of liaison for updates and further information.
8. There’s a scheme called Restorative Justice which offers victims the chance to, among other things, meet the offenders in a supervised way in a bid to get an understanding, if not closure.
9. And even if you hear nothing else, you may get a phone interview for the oddly-named Burglary Victim Satisfaction Survey, asking for your views on how your case was treated.