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British Police Stand Up to Rising Tide of Crime

Safety: Some officials say risk of mugging is greater in London than in New York. Cell phone fad and social policies are blamed.


LONDON — The police patrol had just begun when the officers jumped from their van and cornered three teenagers on a busy street in central London.

A search found the boys wearing two sets of clothes--as muggers sometimes do so they can quickly alter their appearance. One of the boys had two cell phones in his pocket, and another held an unusually large amount of cash.

They were found near the private Jewish Free School, where many students have been mugged, often for their mobile phones, but the youths were defiant under questioning.

"You don't need to know how I got here," said one wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap and silver earrings. "You didn't need to stop me. I don't want to talk to you."

With no evidence to tie the boys to a crime, the police had to let them go. But first the officers turned the boys toward surveillance cameras and took photos of them to keep at the local station.

Muggings and other street crimes have soared in London and elsewhere in Britain, leaving many citizens anxious and bringing orders from the national government to crack down. Scotland Yard has officers on special patrols in nine areas of London where street crime is the worst.

One of those is Camden, which is an odd mix of middle-class neighborhoods and rough "hot spots" known for prostitutes, muggers, drug dealers, homeless people and gangs. Also getting special attention are several impoverished boroughs as well as Westminster, the central area where tourists flock to see Big Ben, Parliament and Buckingham Palace.

Some British officials say crime has increased so sharply that pedestrians are more likely to be mugged here than in New York. From September through November, 19,248 robberies were reported in London, more than double the same period the previous year. Many of those crimes were part of a wave of cell phone thefts.

"There has been a remarkable increase in street crime and gun-related crime in London, unlike anything I think we've seen in the past," Metropolitan Police Commander Robert Quick said in an interview.

When former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani visited in February to receive an honorary knighthood, he was praised for his "zero tolerance" policies that slashed crime by 52%.

London's growing lawlessness has produced a torrent of front-page headlines chronicling assaults, carjackings, killings and gang warfare.

In addition to the leap in robberies, gun crime rose by about 50% in the last year. Burglaries increased 3.6%, and crimes involving automobiles such as carjackings rose 3.8%.

The figures do not mean London has lost its standing as a relatively safe city by world standards. For instance, 26 murders were recorded in January, compared to 11 in Washington, D.C., which has less than one-tenth the population of Britain's capital.

In recent weeks, increased police patrols in London have led to thousands of arrests and a reduction in the number of reported muggings. Still, the crime wave has touched off a widespread debate about Britain's justice system and whether it is too easy on criminals, in part to keep them out of the country's overcrowded prisons.

As British officials embrace Giuliani's message about crime fighting, it remains unclear how well the lessons of New York would work in London.

The two cities have roughly the same populations, but London has 26,000 police officers compared to New York's 41,000. And the New York police commissioner is responsible only to the mayor, while London's is accountable to both the national and city governments.

Police often cite three main reasons for the increase in crime: a shortage of officers, reassignment of many officers to anti-terrorist duties after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and the surge in mobile phone thefts.

But they also say many of the people being arrested are young, first-time offenders who joined street gangs as a defense against being bullied in poor areas, then turned to petty crime.

Quick, the police commander, disagrees with the notion that the current problem is a temporary result of the mobile phone fad. He blames broader social problems.

"What we are seeing is a cultural shift in the streets, and I think it's a consequence of some of our economic and social policies in London," he said.

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