Crime: is anybody safe out there?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last week, a woman was

abducted and raped in broad daylight in London's

prestigious Regent's Park. Heather Mills examines

fears of spreading crime, and, below, visits the scene

Are London's posh areas no longer safe? News stories would appear to suggest so. John Mills, the husband of the Director of Public Prosecutions, was stabbed yards from his Georgian home in a leafy street in Camden Town, north London. Nicky Clarke, hairdresser to the rich and famous, was robbed of his Rolex in St John's Wood. The actress Elizabeth Hurley was set upon near her home in Kensington.

Most recently, and most disturbingly, a young women was raped, cut with a knife and robbed during a two-hour ordeal in daylight in Regent's Park. However, the better off can take some consolation from the fact that studies show that people living in poor inner-city areas are far more likely to be victims of crime, that teenage males are far more likely to be victims of violent crime, and that certain unfortunate people - particularly burglary victims - are likely to be targeted repeatedly by criminals.

So is anywhere in the capital safe?

No. Well-lit streets might be safer than dark parks and alleyways. But there have always been attacks of all kinds all over the city. Recently, there has simply been a spate of high-profile cases in which affluent victims have been attacked near their homes. Figures for the capital's 20 royal parks show low levels of serious crime, compared with surrounding areas - only two rapes in the past six years. There are high crime pockets in poorer inner-city areas, but it is prejudice as well as publicity that leads people to expect to be mugged in Brixton rather than in leafy Belgravia. What has changed is that there is more violent crime generally and that some violent crime - such as breaking into cars with people in them - is more audacious.

Does that mean everyone is at greater risk of attack?

According to Labour, the risk of being a victim of violent crime or house burglary has trebled in the past 15 years. Londoners face a one-in-four chance of suffering car crime, a one-in-11 chance of being burgled, and a one-in-45 chance of becoming a victim of violence.

Doesn't that type of answer mean you are fuelling people's fear of crime at a time when the overall recorded crime rate is falling?

Yes, and that was just what Labour was also accused of. It may be unfair to average out figures, when certain people in certain areas are clearly at higher risk, but the statistics give weight to Labour's claim: even if you are not a victim of crime, someone you know is. Although recorded property crime has dropped, Home Office statistics reveal a 6 per cent increase in violent crime last year. The number of murders, which normally runs at about 650 deaths a year, was up by 8 per cent to 727, and the number of rapes rose by 11 per cent.

In London, crimes of violence increased by 17 per cent. Reported rapes rose by 162 to 1,361, and police say there were about 11,000 muggings and street thefts in the year to March. The area in which Mr Mills was attacked comes under the north-west police division, which has pockets of extreme wealth and poverty - and recorded the highest level of street robberies at 2,810.

So does this mean that London is the riskiest place in Britain in which to live?

Not at all. London comes 13th in the crime league for England and Wales. And according to the Audit Commission, the only big metropolitan city that is safer is Liverpool. There are 112.3 crimes committed per 1,000 people in London, compared with Liverpool's 95. Humberside is apparently the crime blackspot with 157 recorded crimes per 1,000 people. But if you are really worried, move to Dyfed-Powys - it has only 47.

Are other Western cities safer?

Certainly not. You are 10 times more likely to be murdered in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago and 30 times more likely to be killed in Washington DC. London, in fact, compares quite well against most other European capitals; only residents in some major cities in Japan and Germany seem to enjoy greater safety.

But isn't this all lies. Damn lies. And crime statistics?

Yes. Crime figures are notoriously unreliable and can be used to support all sorts of policies and theories. No one knows the real level of crime. "Victimless" crimes, such as prostitution and drug-taking, are not reported - neither is the bulk of violent crime, including rape. Of the crimes reported to police, not all are recorded, perhaps because police cannot establish that the offence has taken place, or perhaps as a policy of not recording certain matters. Crimes actually recorded by police are most often cited, but are really only a fraction of the true figure. The British Crime Survey tries to get closer to the truth with a detailed study of 14,500 households. This puts the number of crimes at about 15 million a year, triple the number recorded by police.

But what is so horrible about these recent high-profile attacks, such as the one in Regent's Park, is that no one helps. Don't people intervene anymore?

Yes, they do. The shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, recently revealed how he helped pin a mugger to the ground until police arrived and how he went to the aid of a woman who was being attacked - both incidents happened just a few yards from his south London home in an area where rich and poor live side by side. But police perceptions are that passers- by are more reluctant to get involved, partly because of fear of getting hurt themselves. When Mark Maynard, of Reading, tried to stop four youths attacking a schoolgirl on a bus, he was beaten and suffered a fractured skull, and facial and chest injuries. His cries for help were ignored by other passengers as he was dragged off the bus and repeatedly attacked with a crowbar.

So what do police advise you to do if you see someone needing help?

Do something - even if it's only alerting the police. Don't pass by and think someone else will act. As the Regent's Park incident would appear to indicate, they may not. Make a public scene, call out and alert others so several of you act. Stop your car, beep your horn and shout instructions to others.

She must have felt nothing could happen ...

I leave the elegant terraces surrounding Fitzroy Square, retracing her steps to nearby Great Portland Street station and wonder where on earth her attackers sprang from - the pocket-sized gardens in the square itself? The little cafes? Or were they simply walking the streets?

Certainly she had become aware of them before she reached the station and after pausing at the scene of a fire on nearby Conway Street. They probably attracted her attention because most of the people in such a busy part of central London in rush hour are hurrying purposefully along the streets to head down tube station holes - typical London commuters, oblivious to what is going on around them.

At Great Portland Street station there are newspaper sellers, a dry cleaners, a kiosk, a flower stall. Half a dozen people wait outside for a bus and, across the road, a few more sit outside the Green Man pub enjoying an after-work drink. Every few moments a tube train brings through the next wave of passengers.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder why she didn't seek help from one of the people at the station instead of making a telephone plea to a work colleague to join her.

The row of three phone boxes are in full view of those leaving the station. I guess she would have felt nothing could happen if she waited for her friend there.

But it did. In this very public ticket area, the two men drew a knife, held it to her side and forced her across six lanes of traffic on the Marylebone Road and into Regent's Park.

The road in rush-hour is bumper to bumper noise and pollution. Despite the volume of traffic, drivers move swiftly when the lights are green. I wouldn't think of crossing against the lights, but the woman and her attackers must have done so to cause at least one driver to swerve. But how many others, concentrating on the road and on getting home, would have noted the trio - particularly since the threat of the knife no doubt made her too terrified to scream for help?

Two joggers pant past the creamy Regency facades of Park Square east; across the road, a woman walks a huge dog and I'm in the park itself, such a relief.

It's busy - lads are turning up for an evening football match, there are skateboarders, roller skaters, tourists and workers. A few people are stretched out, clothes off, on the grass.

Mothers and fathers watch over their toddlers in the children's area, and apart from the distant drone of traffic and the odd glimpse through the trees of the Post Office tower, you could almost forget this was rush hour - or the scene of the rape and assault.

Across the ring road and I'm into the park's inner circle and rose garden - slightly past its best show, but still putting out a wonderful scent. The route towards the open-air theatre, near where the attack took place, is dotted with lovers, with families and commuters and with those heading for the theatre itself.

A policeman said the woman and her assailants would have been seen by scores of people - and he is right.

In the inner circle are a few dark, secluded pockets of shrubs and trees. In one of these the woman was raped and beaten for two hours. A few feet away people walk by or sit on benches. I see an elderly woman sitting alone. Does she feel safe in the park? "My dear, I am 76," she says. "You can't live your life according to newspaper headlines. You'd never go out. If I can't come here on a summer's evening, where can I go?"

She is right, of course. The frightening thing about the Regent's Park attack is that these two men had the audacity to think they could get away with such a dreadful crime in such peaceful, pleasant - and popular - surroundings. The only thing more frightening is that, so far, they seem to have succeeded.