Surveillance at the heart of a painstaking operation

Jason Bennetto joins an East End squad as they step up the pressure
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Trailing a group of young men around the back streets of London for days on end without making an arrest is not quite NYPD Blue. But it is painstaking - and at times mind-numbing - surveillance operations that are at the heart of Scotland Yard's new initiative against street crime.

Although Operation Eagle Eye was officially launched yesterday, it has in effect been running in some areas for several months. On Tuesday, we joined the robbery squad at Forest Gate police station in the East End of London. The station covers one of the poorest areas in the capital. It is a typical run-down inner-city zone, with Indians and Pakistanis making up about a quarter of the population, Afro-Caribbeans 14 per cent and whites 58 per cent.

Within the three square miles of streets, shops and homes, about 800 robberies occur during a year. These vary from gold chains being ripped from pedestrians, to children being forced to hand over pocket money and machete-wielding thugs accosting people at cash points.

The police believe about 24 people are responsible for about 70 per cent of the crimes. It is this small hard core of offenders that the Forest Gate robbery squad is targeting. This week's prime suspect is a black teenager. It is the third day of the surveillance - known as Operation Barbican.

About 20 officers were briefed in the morning and shown a video taken from one of several secret police observation posts dotted throughout the area. It shows the young man wandering streets. On at least two occasions he is seen apparently buying drugs from dealers. Officers are warned he has a history of violence; during an earlier arrest he was found with a machete and a chisel.

The squad from Forest Gate, which was set up at the beginning of April and includes only one black officer, was split into teams for the operation. Several undercover officers are assigned to follow the suspect, while other plain-clothes officers wait in unmarked cars nearby. Everyone keeps in touch by radio, though precautions are taken not to reveal details because criminals often use frequently listen into the police on electronic scanners.

At about 10am the squad sets off. The suspect is spotted later in the day and tailed. It is the hottest day of the year. Several hours later the police have a list of his activities - none of which involves street robbery. The same procedure took place on Wednesday, but again no arrest was made. "It's all about being in the right place at the right time, which is hard," one detective said.

A similar intense surveillance operation carried out earlier this year resulted in four people being charged with robbery offences. The officers involved believe the huge resources used on targeting what is a fairly low-level criminal are justified. One officer said: "I saw a 16-year-old girl the other day who is now frightened of leaving her home because she was mugged at a cash point. This is a young girl who has been traumatised by the experience."

The police in Forest Gate say that about 75 per cent of the main repeat offenders in the area that the squad covers are black.

But as Det Insp Colette Paul, head of the Forest Gate robbery squad, said, this is 75 per cent of a very small group. "It's the criminal element we are after - it's not black youths."

Police statistics for the area show that according to victim reports 385 people suspected of carrying out street crime were black - about 78 per cent of the total. Most of these are believed to be repeat offenders. There were 66 white suspects and 42 Asians.

As far as the victims are concerned, about 45 per cent of those who reported a street crime in Forest Gate were Asian and a similar proportion white. Black people make up about 10 per cent of the people who said they had been mugged.

The robbery squad not only investigates all street crimes, but has also carried out large-scale surveillance operations, which include the use of video cameras at areas where street robbery is common, such as shopping malls.