Tim Walker: Need a police officer? Well good luck

The mugging victim and I waited two hours. And then we gave up
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The Independent Online

I very rarely have reason to dial 999. Yet I've always found those three identical digits comforting. Should the worst happen, I believed, a policeman, fireman or paramedic was just a phonecall and a brief but blessedly noisy journey away. I was disabused of that notion at about 10.45 one night this week when I met a man who'd just been mugged, on Commercial Street in east London, and called the emergency services on his behalf. Or at least, I was disabused of it by the time we both gave up on the police coming to his rescue, and decided to go home. Two hours later.

When I found him, the victim, a Bengali-speaker with little English, was scanning the ground, bewildered, for the lens that had been knocked from his glasses. His sweater was torn and bloodstained. He'd been set upon by a group of men, who made off with his wallet and his watch, though not before knocking him over and giving him a good kicking. I learned as much from another man who kindly stopped to translate.

When I made my first 999 call, it was already at least 20 minutes since the mugging. Half an hour later, I made a second, just to check we were still on the to-do list. Soon after that, our translator left to catch his last bus. And shortly after midnight, still with no sign of our knights in shiny black nylon, I called a third time.

The operator told me someone would be along just as soon as they could manage. By now, I was exasperated, and not a little chilly – and I wasn't even the one who'd been mugged. Commercial Street is a busy road in E1 and home to plenty of criminal activity, not all of it violent. It does not boast any convenient late-night cafés. So we shivered on the pavement, trying to converse in pidgin English.

London has not only the UK's biggest police force, but also the most officers per head of any British city. Tower Hamlets (through which Commercial Street runs), with more than 750 officers, is one of its "best" policed boroughs.

There have been plenty of column inches devoted to the disarray at the top of the Met, but I'd assumed that, at street level, it was an institution I could trust. What's the point of a well-populated police force, when it seems reluctant to deal with the most basic of crimes?

During that two hours we did, in fact, see plenty of policemen. Of the eight – yes, eight – police cars that we watched pass by oblivious, six had sirens blaring, presumably speeding towards a more significant crime scene – or rushing home before their takeaway curries got cold. Thinking they might be looking for us, we tried in vain to flag them down.

The seventh passed by on the other side of the road before we could hail its occupants. But the last came to a halt right in front of us, in the queue for the traffic lights, and I tapped on its window, explaining our predicament to the peelers within. They looked mildly concerned, for about half a second, before one said: "Sorry mate, we're not the local police. They'll probably be along in a minute." Well, mate. They were not along in a minute. Nor in 20 minutes, or 40. At which point the unlucky victim walked home alone in the cold, and so did I.

The police have since told me that "in this case we appear to have let the victim down". A Detective Chief Superintendent went as far as to say that he was "extremely disappointed with our handling of this particular incident". But not, I suspect, as disappointed as me and my Bengali acquaintance.