Scilly Five-0: Island hit by crime-wave

The sleepy isles have been engulfed by an unlikely crime wave. James Waterson joins their overworked police force on the beat

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The Independent Online

Few policemen can claim to be on friendly terms with all their potential suspects, but Sergeant Colin Taylor has an unusual beat: the Isles of Scilly, the archipelago 28 miles off Land's End, which is home to just over 2,000 people.

The sedate isles – once labelled "the land that crime forgot" – are suffering from an unprecedented crime wave. Well, by their standards, anyway.

The number of offences committed on these isolated Atlantic outcrops has more than doubled this year to 100. Drink-driving, minor drug use, underwear theft, the use of pepper spray to break up a fight, and the threat of using a Taser on a drunken construction worker – such is the lot of Sgt Taylor. The 100th incident in his logbook occurred when an electric fence at a wildlife trust was vandalised. This is rather big news in a place where residents leave their doors unlocked and car keys in the ignition.

Locals are keen to emphasise that the bonds of trust which rule the community still remain, and so The Independent joined Sgt Taylor, 45, on a Thursday night patrol around the main island of St Mary's.Sgt Taylor's job is reminiscent of Heartbeat, "but less frenetic", he insists, despite the relative surge in criminal enterprise. This summer's rioting did not spread to the Scillies, for instance. In fact, the closest Scilly has ever come to a riot, he says, "was one winter when the Gry [cargo ship] couldn't get in for a few days and beer supplies became perilously low".

Striding through Hugh Town, the main commercial hub, he greets the majority of people we pass by name and talks with enthusiasm about the island's in-built security advantage: "You can't be a serious thief here who breaks into cars and breaks into houses because of the fear of getting caught. The only reason you're going to steal is to realise a profit – and how can you do that while you're on the islands?

"The only other way to realise a financial gain would be to take it away from the isles – and there's 28 miles of Atlantic Ocean that stops you doing that.

"Equally, there may be people here with drug habits, but it's very difficult to maintain class-A dependency if you don't have someone who feeds that habit. You can't be an organised crime group out here because it would come to my notice pretty swiftly."

Even when a thief gets caught it is easy to punish offenders without recourse to jail terms. "Restorative justice really does work well out here because it's such a small community," Sgt Taylor says. "Showing contrition and remorse in public is a big thing when everyone knows you."

Scilly has always been an anomaly. It is the most southern point in Britain with an unusually warm climate that attracts 100,000 tourists a year; even at the start of December daffodils are flowering in the fields. All provisions are brought in by ship or air which means high prices (£1.73 for a litre of petrol) and irregular supply: if you want the Sunday paper you'll have to wait to join the long queue on Monday morning.

One quirk is the absence of any MOT tests, meaning that islanders can drive cars in varying states of decay without too many worries about falling foul of the law. A taxi driver admits "people tend to get a little lax around here" but that every so often vehicle inspectors visit from the mainland to check standards. Surely everyone gets wind that they're coming and hides their cars? He grins. "A few might, yeah."

A few doors down a steep lane from the police station is Mike Hicks, 77, chairman of the island's council and part of a Scilly family that can trace its roots back to 1700. Despite proudly refusing to lock his front door, even he has noticed a change in attitudes: "The culture is changing. One time you would drive around and leave your keys in the car while you had a chat with someone, but people like Colin would tell you not to do that. If you have people who've had a joyous evening in the pub and they come out and fancy a joy drive around the island then you could find your car slightly battered at the end of the day."

He also warns potential thieves against targeting the island. "Before Colin arrived there was incident when a foreigner working at the Mermaid pub broke into the till and then booked himself on to a helicopter away from the islands. By chance one of the policemen walked into the airport and this bloke asked whether they'd caught anyone for the robbery. The policemen asked 'What robbery?', made a few calls and arrested the man before he got onboard."

Clive Mumford's family have run the islands' main newsagents for over a century – and he doubles-up as a local journalist. "A few years ago there was a bloke who smashed the window of the jeweller's shop and walked off with some jewels. Trouble was, he was so plastered that the trail of gems led to his room and he was nicked. A day later he was seen in the pub asking people how to get off the island."

Back in the dark lanes around St Mary's, we're on the look-out for drunk drivers leaving any of the five main drinking establishments. With limited entertainment in the winter months there's a temptation to pop into the pub for a drink before heading home along the narrow roads; a recent arrest has forced the magistrates to be specially convened in the council chamber – a rare occurrence.

Given Sgt Taylor's friendships with the islanders, arrests can be socially awkward in such a small community: "The person who was charged with drink-driving the other day was a really nice person and it was almost embarrassing for everyone involved that the arrest was made. People understand that it's a difficult job. You're adversarial to people you know and respect. But you can't favour people; you have to be straight down the line."

Sgt Taylor's love for the Isles of Scilly runs deep. After studying biology at Leicester Polytechnic he became an island warden, assisting with conservation projects in locations such as Jersey, Mauritius and Madagascar – "I helped reintroduce the pink pigeon to Mauritius", he says – before joining Devon & Cornwall police in 1995. Soon after, he got married on the isles, stayed for his honeymoon and saw in the Millennium while serving as deputy. When Scilly's top policing position became available in August this year he signed up for a three-year stint to head a team of four.

He says that any recourse to extreme measure is a by-product of limited manpower and a need to act on his own. "One night at 11 o'clock we got a call that there was a fight. As soon as the bloke saw me he decided he wanted to fight me. He wouldn't calm down and was clearly going to try to assault me. On the mainland if I radioed for support I'd get two cars behind me in minutes, but here there's nothing. So I gave him a quick spray, people helped me handcuff him and he's been bailed off to the mainland.

"After I'd used the spray I went to bed at seven and was up two hours later to make sure he left the island. As I walked out of my door I passed two holidaymakers said: 'Ooh, a policeman on Scilly – you can't have much to do.' I just wearily rolled my eyes."

"When I go to bed at the end of this shift, I'm supposed to have three days off. But if I get a call half an hour later then I'll be up and I will be expected to deal with a fight five minutes after waking up – I'm spraying pepper in people's eyes as I'm still wiping the sleep from my eyes."

Touring the pubs before closing time he's greeted warmly. Residents are keen to know when the 101st police incident will be announced – but there's another major issue they want reporting: "You should investigate Colin for cheating in the pub quiz", shouts one drinker.

The sergeant denies the charge.

The charge sheet: Island crimes

Knicker nicker

Andrew Stephan was banned from the islands for seven years in 2005 after being found guilty of stealing women's underwear and sex toys. The builder took the clothing from washing lines but his theft was only discovered after the central heating broke down in the house he used to share with his ex-wife. Her new partner pulled up part of the floor in the loft and found the stolen belongings.

On cue

The band British Sea Power launched a UK tour with a gig at the Scillonian Club on St Mary's. In the aftermath of a raucous gig it was reported that a pool cue had been stolen from the club.

Whisky galore

The container ship MV Cita ran aground off St Mary's in March 1997. Residents helped salvage cargo that included trainers, T-shirts, panelled doors, golf bags and computer mice. Although much of the salvage was reported to the Receiver of Wrecks, no prosecutions were brought against those who did not follow official procedure.

When builders attack

A builder was arrested after trying to attack Sergeant Taylor. He used pepper spray and took the culprit to one of the island's two police cells. Ten hours later the man was sent back to the mainland and lost his job on the island.

Red hair at night

Sergeant Taylor recently stopped a cyclist who was cycling in the dark without lights. Her defence? "But I have red hair."

... and the 100th crime

The 100th incident entered in the police log book was reported vandalism to an electric fence erected by a wildlife trust. The barrier is the focus of a dispute about the right to graze animals on parts of the islands.

Follow Sergeant Colin Taylor on Twitter at @ScillySergeant.