Michael Williams: Mean streets

An off-duty policewoman is brutally killed after she disturbs a burglar outside her home in a London suburb. Here is another family's shocking account of how terror came last week to the heartlands of New Labour. And how the police were shown to be powerless
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The Independent Online

It's the tinkling of glass in the street outside that wakes me. Normally, I wouldn't bother. Car crime is so routine round here, it's hardly worth getting out of bed for.

But this sounds odd, different. Looking across the road from the bedroom window, I am witnessing a nightmare scene from a horror movie. A large, shaven-headed man is swinging a 4ft crowbar at the front window of the house opposite. Not a sly little burglary, you understand, but a full frontal, violent assault, completely visible from the road. Panic kicks in as I realise that the family's car is parked outside, and they and their young daughter must be sleeping upstairs.

It's a cliché to say these things happen in slow motion. But in this case, they do. After smashing out the glass, he plunges the crowbar into the closed wooden shutters, and he and four others, who have been crouched behind the hedge, climb into the living room, one by one. The thing I will always remember is that Crowbar Man is wearing rockstar-style shades. Yet it is one o'clock in the morning.

But let's locate ourselves: we're not on a no-hope estate in Peckham, or Easterhouse, or Knowsley here. We're not even in Wembley, where also last week, a hooded thief stabbed an off-duty policewoman to death as she investigated a noise outside her home. This is Blair Central, London NW1. Pat (Hewitt) lives at the end of the road. Tessa (pending the divorce from David) is only a few streets away. It's just a jog to Alastair and Fiona's place, over by the Heath, near David (Miliband)'s old school.

Yet it is not "smart", in the way Kensington or Belgravia is. Here are streets of mostly gentrified early-Victorian and Georgian houses in a triangle between Regent's Park, Camden Lock and Tony and Cherie's old Islington pad.

Their inhabitants were cleverly satirised by Marc Boxer in his 1970s Times cartoon strip, Life and Times in NW1 and in Jonathan Raban's book, Soft City. In Raban's words, they were "sceptical, middle-class liberal intellectuals, with jobs in journalism and television, who subscribed to strenuously advanced views on politics, art and education. They were ardent campaigners for every kind of Liberation, they belonged to the intellectual wing of the Labour Party appeared on late night television programmes as spokesmen for the new enlightenment".

Thirty years on, not much has changed down my street (strictly, a group of houses around a garden square), chosen seemingly at random on this May night by a gang with a crowbar. Here live an internationally famous architect, the chef-owner of London's smartest Italian restaurant, a professor of history at one of Britain's best universities, as well as the dean of another, an eminent psychotherapist and the fashion editor of a quality national newspaper. Add in a couple of internet entrepreneurs and you've got the picture.

It's fair to say, like Marc Boxer's fictitious Simon Stringalong, we're all pretty tolerant. The exuberant crowd emerging from 24-hour bars in the small hours and pissing in the hedges are one thing. But, hell, we're living in cool Camden. (Many of us with young children and early bedtimes may secretly feel envious.) Then there's the car crime. If you've got away with a couple of break-ins a year, you're lucky and the worst you can lose is your no-claims bonus.

And we can can safely ignore the murders, the prostitutes chopped up by one of the local council tenants and left in binbags, or the rabbi dissected in similar manner by a sociopath he met in our friendly gay bar, or the Somali gang execution of a teenager. (Not our kind of people, really.)

As for the hoodie boys, who inhabit the garden during the day, driving out the old ladies, and racing their cars round the gardens at night, we've trusted our community policeman who says they've got nowhere else to go. It's their territory. Never mind that they shout four-letter words into the small hours underneath the bedroom windows of our sleeping children, we must feel sympathetic. If they are moved on, they may get beaten by another, even nastier gang. Are you shocked that one of the people who burgled our house after Christmas was eight years old? You get used to it.

But behind the shutters are more anguished, private stories. Two years ago, my 16-year-old daughter had her nose broken by a gang of girl bullies, while coming to the aid of a fellow pupil at our local state school. This girls' school is regarded as one of the "best" in London, and it is no surprise that so many New Labourites spend extravagantly on houses in the catchment area to gain entry for their children. But I cannot pretend, as my daughter takes her A-levels this week (at a new school, well away from Camden) that her confidence and academic progress have not been affected by the trauma.

The same will almost certainly be true for the sleeping family whose lives are being shaken out of the blue on this night by a man with a crowbar. By a miracle, there was a patrol car nearby, which responded to my 999 call within a minute. Phew! Five people are arrested, two already in the house, one hiding in the toilet and two caught in the act of climbing through the window. Snatched, literally red-handed, since Crowbar has cut his arm and is bleeding liberally over the Georgian stucco. Decent guys, these cops. They put on handcuffs, then send him away in an ambulance. He is the only one hurt. Physically, at least.

Next night, I'm in the police station giving a statement on what seems like a clear-cut case. Crowbar and friends are in the downstairs lockup and Camden police have put a top team on the case. "Sorry about the heat," says the affable black detective sergeant in charge. It's the hottest night of the year and there is no air conditioning in this run-down Victorian copshop.

So much for the cutting edge of techno-policing. I am led into a room full of sweating detectives in shirtsleeves, munching on burgers from the McDonald's next door. They all look as though they are running on overtime as indeed they might be, given that they still have to use laborious Seventies long-hand technology to take down their statements. It would only need John Simm to walk in to make it seem entirely authentic.

The DS, now in the umpteenth hour of his shift, gives me the inside story. Crowbar and friends met in Camden Town, got off their heads, decided they might "chill out for the night" and landed on my neighbour's house, claiming it was "a squat". (If I revealed what his job was, you would know it wasn't.) But the DS is worried. They've all clammed up, saying they can't recall their actions. No one will admit to the crowbar, although every cop in the station (including probably John Simm) knows he was holding it. So nobody can be done for breaking and entering. Intent to steal? Well nothing was stolen. And there is no crime of smashing into a family home and scaring its inhabitants out of their wits.

Later that night, I get a call from the DS. "The CPS have decided to NFA [not for action] the case," he tells me gloomily. The lawyers had decided that despite the gang being caught red-handed, there may be " identification issues" so any charges they could make would not stick. "We've got to let them go," he says. "Bit of a downer, eh?"

Downer? I was gobsmacked. It defied all common sense. Not just for me, but, I am certain, for the family over the road, who will probably have to relive this nightmare for years. As for Crowbar, he'll no doubt be back down the pub tonight.

I wish there were a moral to this tale, and that I could rant, Melanie Phillips-style, about the plight of the middle classes and the "state of Britain today". But it's not so simple. House prices down our way continue to soar; up 12.6 per cent over the year, among the biggest rises in the capital. The price of crack cocaine outside my gate is at a record low, but my professional friends aren't averse to a snort either.

Tony Blair loved Camden for being tough on crime and for heading the London league of Asbos. Yet in the local elections two weeks ago, Labour was kicked out, and the Liberal Democrats, who are softer on crime, now dominate. (Though they may be paying for this already, since a newly elected Lib Dem councillor was knocked unconscious and robbed in a local street last Saturday night.)

Could David Cameron do any better? I doubt it, though his proposals to reform the antiquated structure of the Met might get air conditioning in at the local nick. As for the coppers themselves, like all middle-class people, you have to warm to them in a crisis. Just regular guys, really, barely keeping their heads above water in an inner-city battle against drugs, booze and street crime. I have vowed never to complain again if they are slow to respond to the phones.

Actually, there is one man who should have the key, Philip (Lord) Gould, Tony Blair's focus group wizard, who has spun for New Labour on crime (and all its other policies) for the past 10 years. Unfortunately, Philip and Gail sold their house at No 6 last year. They've now moved on somewhere posher.

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