Out on patrol as the PSNI tightens its grip on car hijack gang
As public fear grows over car hijackings in Belfast Jonathan McCambridge joins the police team fighting back against the crime gangs
Six marked police cars pull into a housing estate in the Lower Falls. Within seconds young people gathering on street corners grab their mobile phones to alert others. Pensioners come to their front doors to see what is happening as word quickly spreads.
The police vehicles position themselves at the front and back of one terraced house in what is one of the most deprived areas of Belfast. They are after a member of the prolific crime gang ‘The Divis Hoods’ who is believed to be behind scores of crimes. He is 17 years old.
As officers swoop on the house in numbers a female relative of the youth bellows at them from a top window: “What do you want? Get away from my house!” A large barking dog in the back yard adds to the unwelcome feeling.
It is Saturday night and this is Operation Ruscio, a proactive PSNI operation against the spate of car hijackings which has terrorised women in Belfast since January.
There have been more than 20 reported incidents in 2012 and police have found themselves under pressure to respond. The fightback has begun.
On this occasion the teenager is not home but a large crowd has gathered. Officers quickly spot another suspect and take him aside for questioning. Inspector Norman Haslett tells me: “You have to remember there is a threat level and that is why we are here in numbers.”
Moments later we are on the road again in the PSNI Vectra Estate weaving our way through the maze of narrow streets which makes up this part of west Belfast. It is here that this story of car hijackings, which has dominated headlines for weeks, begins.
Historically, west Belfast has been plagued with joyriding incidents; police call it “death driving”.
However, as car security has improved it has become increasingly difficult to steal vehicles. The crime has evolved. Criminals, often as young as 14, are now targeting women as they return to their vehicles, viewing them as a soft target.
Operation Ruscio covers large parts of Belfast. Many of the incidents have taken place in the city centre, but the emphasis is clear. Intelligence-led patrols in the Falls and Grosvenor areas reveal who they are targeting in numbers — The Divis Hoods.
It is a name that Inspector Haslett clearly has no time for.
“That is their self-professed name but really they are just a shower of criminals. Some of them are as young as 14 to15, up to their early 20s. They are involved in everything from theft to common assault to death driving. They are a collection of individuals who come to our attention from time to time. They are involved in the current spate although there are other criminal elements as well. There has been an element of copycat.
“Often they are out of their heads, they want a lift home and that is why they do it.
“These people are giving west Belfast a bad name. West Belfast is full of decent people and they deserve better than these scumbags.”
What is also clear is that there is a level of organisation to these crimes. Gangs have targeted car parks and businesses at closing time, often waiting for the last car to prepare to leave before they strike. In more than 70% of incidents where the car has been taken a woman has been the victim.
Our police car pulls into an area of grim wasteland between Grosvenor Road, The Westlink and Divis Street which one officer describes as “The Divis Triangle”.
It is here that the Divis Hoods gather and here that most of the cars end up burnt out and destroyed. Tonight, the area is quiet and deserted.
We move back down to the Lower Falls where police have set up a snap vehicle checkpoint. All cars travelling from the city centre into the west of the city are being checked.
With such a heavy police presence every night it is becoming more difficult for the hijackers to operate. Last week a car was stolen in south Belfast, 12 minutes later police intercepted it in the west of the city and one man was arrested and charged.
Despite public fears, police believe they are winning this battle.
In that same incident three officers were hurt after their vehicle collided with the stolen car.
Police worry that teenagers driving stolen cars at high speeds across the city could have fatal consequences.
Inspector Haslett says: “These people are not out for a leisurely drive. They will do anything to stop being caught. It is not just the act of taking the car but also the consequences of a young person driving at speed, putting lives at risk.”
But the inspector is anxious to control public fears.
“You have to remember the number of attacks in terms of the overall number of crimes in Belfast is quite low. There is no acceptable level of hijacking but you are still not very likely to be targeted. Our job is to reassure people.”
I ask the Inspector if he thinks there has been a media and political frenzy over hijackings. Does he feel the police have been unfairly castigated?
He is reluctant to answer, simply saying: “Just tell people we are not lazy.”
What is clear is that police are doing something. It is Saturday night and large parts of the city are swamped with officers.
We move into the north of the city where a TSG unit — riot police to you and me — are stopping cars. The PSNI helicopter hovers overhead and a stinger device has been laid at the side of the road in Duncairn Gardens to stop stolen cars. It is easy to think that this is a special effort, a heavy police presence put on to reassure the public because the media are here. But Inspector Haslett insists it is like this all the time. He stresses that Operation Ruscio operates for several hours every day.
“We like to think that whatever happens, we are ready for them. We are making them think before they try anything.”
Tonight is quiet. No reported incidents. One officer smiles as he quietly says to me: “Maybe this shows that we are winning this battle.” Time will tell.
Carjacking in numbers:
23 — Hijackings or attempted hijackings across the city since the beginning of the year.
20 — Arrests made since the second week of January.
8 — Number of charges.
102 — Number of “priority offenders” PSNI Autocrime team is targeting.
428 — Number of hijacking offences committed in Northern Ireland over the past three years.