To catch a thief

Andrew Brown reflects on the strange case of the stolen headphones, and its hi-tech denouement
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The Independent Online
Nine months ago, a court case was conceived: one of the cleaners stole a pair of headphones off my desk at The Independent. He was captured in the act by a video camera. What followed was an extraordinary demonstration of the ways in which hi-tech offices are constantly subverted by human ingenuity. Even the headphones were part of this subversion, since I use them to restore the privacy that an open-plan office otherwise strips away.

The case finally came to court last week. By the time it reached the court, I had forgotten even in which month the incident had taken place. I had only reported it because I wanted to be able to claim for the fairly expensive headphones on insurance; the last thing I expected was to be told that a culprit had been caught. But the video never sleeps.

The cameras that lurk in toughened black-glass bubbles, like the compound eyes of insects, cost, I am told, pounds 5,500 each and are capable of alarming feats of technological sophistication, such as tracking automatically the movements of tagged equipment through the office. When I complained to the office security people, they sped through a fortnight's worth of tape, watching for a flicker of movement at my desk.

Within a couple of days they told me that they had seen the moment of the theft; and that the police had arrested the culprit. Then I heard nothing, for months and months, until a young policeman took a statement from me. The cleaner had pleaded not guilty, despite the video evidence, and the further evidence of the electronic identity cards with which the doors in this office complex must be opened, which had placed him on the floor at the right moment.

The next shock was to learn that he had elected to go for jury trial. The headphones he stole were worth about pounds 50. Had he admitted their theft, he would probably have been cautioned and released with no further action taken.

He had no previous form and was 25, approaching the age at which young men grow out of crime. By denying his act, in the teeth of video evidence, he was setting himself up for a conviction and criminal record. A 25-year- old black man with a conviction for theft is not going to find honest work again easily.

He had put his finger in the machine, and it had torn his whole arm off, I said to one of the policemen as we waited in the cafeteria of Southwark Crown Court. It is a huge, purpose-built brick fortress on the Thames, which seemed grotesquely disproportionate to the crime. But by then the theft of my pounds 50 headphones had drawn in two police officers, two lawyers, and the head of security from the Mirror Group, which houses our offices. All of us were hanging around, waiting for a courtroom. We had been summoned to attend on a particular day, but no one could be certain when a courtroom would become available. There were 16 courtrooms to choose from, all fitted with video equipment, but all were occupied.

We waited and gossiped all morning with the legal costs ticking up like a taxi meter on Concorde. The lawyers went off to examine the video evidence, again. The cameras use a special high-definition format, with which the police had been able to see every detail of the crime. But then it turned out that this had not survived translation to the more common VHS format. A fresh tape had to be watched.

We broke off for lunch, taxi meters still ticking, but when I returned the whole thing had been solved. It turned out that only two of the courtrooms were fitted with high-definition equipment that would show more than an anonymous arm snaking down to my headphones and whisking them into an anonymous coat. Neither would be free that day. Without the extra fancy equipment there was nothing that would satisfy a jury.

So the cleaner had agreed to accept a caution. There would be no trial, and no conviction, though he would admit his guilt. All that effort by the police, the security men, the lawyers had been almost completely wasted. Nine months of bureaucratic labour had brought forth a mouse - but at least the mouse was free, I thought, as I watched him scampering across the cafeteria where he too had been waiting, with more patience than we had shown.