The police believe the move is an escalation of joyriding, with youths wanting a direct and dangerous confrontation with the police. West Yorkshire Police said that the teenagers, all aged between 14 and 17, had formed a hard-core gang on the Halton Moor estate on the fringe of Leeds with the express intention of stealing cars for fun and then searching for police officers in marked police vehicles.
During the past 12 months, some 230 stolen vehicles have been set on fire by young people on the estate after being used either for joyriding or in connection with other crimes.
There have been six specific incidents of joyriders trying to kill or injure police officers during the past three weeks. The culprits, who have gone out during darkness to steal high-performance cars, usually in the centre of Leeds, have then returned to the Halton Moor housing estate to look for patrolling police cars. They have then chased the police vehicles, rammed them and then either driven off or jumped out of the cars and fled.
It is a worrying twist for the police, who are almost at a loss as to how to deal with the problem. Some officers feel that manufacturers of high-performance cars should do more to make the vehicles immobile except to the legitimate owner or user. Others want harsher sentences for anyone convicted of joyriding.
However, the police do not apprehend many of those responsible. Police will not become involved in high-speed chases, preferring to keep a safe distance from stolen vehicles being driven at speed.
This may be the reason why young people in Leeds have decided to confront police directly and the obvious fear is that others elsewhere will copy the tactic.
PC Lesley Thompson described yesterday how she had been targeted by a teenager in a stolen car. 'He kept ramming my vehicle and then kept trying to overtake. When we neared a roundabout he spun my own car 180 degrees before driving off.'
The Halton Moor estate is a deprived area which suffers from high unemployment and poverty. Brian Murphy, chairman of the estate management board, said of the joyriders: 'It has all become a big game to them to taunt the police and see how far they can push them.' He emphasised, however, that the vast majority of people living in the area did not want such confrontations.
Detective Inspector Keith Lawrence, from the West Yorkshire force, said: 'These young kids are deliberately trying to kill or maim police officers. They are trying to instil fear into police officers, to frighten them off the estate so thay can carry on their illegal activities unhindered.'
Police in the West Midlands said yesterday that the death on Wednesday of Donna Cooper - the 13-year-old killed in a crash with a car driven by joyriders - had not deterred thieves in the area. Two cars were stolen within a mile of Donna's home near Walsall a few hours after her death.