Stop Pickpockets - "Follow your gut feeling."
From 22 June onwards, the Railway Police (SPC) will be taking part in a coordinated awareness campaign at European level. Throughout the summer, the campaign aims to alert travellers to the phenomenon of pickpocketing and theft in and around railway stations and trains/trams/metros. The campaign is brought to life by six little monsters, each of which portray a frequently occurring modus operandi. We speak to Chief Inspector Carlo Cerchi of the Brussels Railway Police. He offers us a glimpse of how pickpockets operate and gives tips on how to stop them in their tracks.
Chief Inspector Carlo Cerchi has been fascinated by the pickpocketing phenomenon since 2012 and has been team chief for two years. "It is now up to me to pass on the passion to my team members," says the driven Chief Inspector. "I want my team to go all out and keep at it until the last second."
The Belgian campaign focuses initially on the locations identified by our own statistics, i.e. in the Brussels conurbation, and more specifically at the five main stations in Brussels: Central, Midi, North, Luxembourg and Schuman. "We are mainly active in Brussels-Midi because of its international dimension," continues Carlo Cerchi. "There are trains, trams, metros, pre-metros, taxis and buses to foreign countries, shopping opportunities ... so a lot of people to mug."
More than one profile
Chief Inspector Cerchi's team takes a phenomenon-driven approach. Their attention is focused on all the pickpockets and muggers who are active in the Brussels metro and train stations. They go out every day, ideally in teams of four. Carlo Cerchi: "Having three in a team is not enough, because for most modi operandi, there are several suspects, often two, and then there is the victim whom we have to take care of. When a train arrives at Brussels-Midi, we usually see straight away who we need to keep an eye on. We do not engage in ethnic profiling; we profile mainly on the basis of behaviour. We ask ourselves a huge number of questions and weigh up the pros and cons to determine if the person involved is a pickpocket. The main questions we ask ourselves are: what is the excuse for someone being at a station? Why are they getting close to people travelling? Are they under the influence? Anxious? We must take into account that there is no specific profile: our view must be wide open! A 'regular' tourist can be a mugger. It's usually men, but women also strike. Depending on their origin, they specialise in a particular modus operandi and steal either wallets, mobile phones, laptops, (travel) bags, handbags and so on. Although we have recently noticed that pickpockets no longer limit themselves to one modus operandi; they mix them up strikingly often and quickly. You have to realise that each modus operandi requires a different positioning of accomplices to carry out the tracking, see the theft and catch the suspect in the act."
Modi operandi and division of roles
"At present, we are facing a whole generation of pickpockets without a shred of respect for the public, the police, or for the public prosecutor's office. They work in groups, are well organised and adapt to situations very quickly," the Chief Inspector continues.
"When we talk about muggers who are extremely skilled and belong to itinerant offender groups, I remember one group of five that came to Brussels every day. One of them took up station on a terrace and watched. He was in contact with the others to choose the victims and spot the police. But like us, they have a sixth sense and can see the police coming from a mile, especially the older, wily foxes. If there is the slightest doubt, they inform their colleagues and move their field of action. They sometimes buy a ticket and board an international train, believing that they can then go about their business undisturbed. It's a cat and mouse game, which to me doesn't feel like work, but rather like pursuing a hobby."
The tricks of pickpockets know no bounds. "They will give you a hug, drop coins or do a 'Zidane', the latest trend in pickpocket land: they 'cling' to their victim and perform the 360 degree-turn, except there's no football. The victim is momentarily distracted - as is always the case with pickpockets - and this is conveniently exploited to steal the mobile phone or wallet." Detail: the 'Zidane' is qualified as violent theft. The more discreet name is the 'football technique'.
For the European campaign (www.stop-pickpockets.eu), six monsters were created, each monster representing a particular modus operandi. There's the Window Rapper, the Blocker, the Giver of Flowers, the Collider, the Fake Tourist, and the Cunning Spiller. "We often see the Window Rapper and Cunning Spiller," says the Chief Inspector. "The Window Rapper knocks on the train window, while their accomplice on the train steals the valuables (usually a laptop or backpack) from the distracted victim. The Cunning Spiller 'accidentally' stains the victim's clothing; while removing the stains (because a companion happens to have paper towels on them), the victim's attention is diverted from their luggage and so the other companion seizes the opportunity to snatch it. The principle is often the same: one perpetrator distracts the victim while the other mugs them."
As a BDO coach (Behaviour Detection Officer), Chief Inspector Cerchi is a good judge of people and behaviour; he has developed an excellent gut instinct over the years. He is familiar with the division of roles among the groups of perpetrators: "First of all there is the snatcher, who 'snatches' the wallet or purse (or something else). Then we have the blocker: he covers up the act and makes sure nobody notices anything. The counter-observer then checks for the presence of the police or other inquisitive members of the public. The distractor is the one who knocks on the window or spills coffee for example and then there is the insurer: if the victim realises he has been robbed and asks if anyone saw anything, he will 'insure' the victim and send them the wrong way. Finally, and the role of this person is the hardest to prove: the leader. He manages his team, organises pickpocket sessions and so on. You'll find at least one of these roles represented in every pickpocket incident, although most of them operate in pairs."
High prosecution rate
The team members work like a well-oiled machine; they are friends who know what is expected of them. They handle all files from A to Z and burning the midnight oil is part of the deal ...
"We work well with the other Brussels police zones, such as with the 'Trekkers' and 'Intel/ILP' of the Brussels CAPITAL Ixelles Local Police, BST of the Polbruno Local Police, UNEUS of the Brussels Midi Local Police, as well as with the public prosecutor's office. The prosecution rate is high", says a satisfied Carlo Cerchi. "If we catch a pickpocket in the act late at night, we make sure the file is complete as soon as possible, which can lead to an immediate summons or arrest warrant. In 2020, there were 146 arrests for 'thieving' in the act and 337 interrogations leading to deprivation of liberty (Salduz 4). This figure is rather high and is the result of the fact that many cases are solved using camera images. Seventy-three offenders were handed over to the public prosecutor's office and 15 immediate summonses were issued. Forty individuals were placed under arrest warrant or were summoned with an arrest warrant. Minors often go unpunished."
Chief Inspector Cerchi appeared on the investigative program FAROEK in November 2020, for a case of shoulder surfing. A pickpocket with 29 offences on his record (between 2016 and 2020) was sought ... and found. "All the facts had been captured on camera," explains Carlo Cerchi. "Thanks to the cooperation with, and goodwill of, a lot of colleagues from both Local and Federal Police (such as the Directorate of Operations on Judicial Police/DJO), we got there in the end."
When the chief orders pizza ...
In order to remain incognito, the team members must behave and dress as inconspicuously as possible ... "We dress like we're going for a pint with friends at the train station," laughs Carlo Cerchi. "Casual wear, that is. We are constantly on the move and in communication with each other. You do have to give the muggers some leeway to catch them in the act. A bad day for us is a day with many pursuits with nothing to show for it. We can sometimes cover up to 25 kilometres on foot. And if I order food and want to eat it with my team, they're guaranteed to strike just then ... This is how we ended up with an attempt at manslaughter that we caught in the act a while ago. The promised pizzas then finally arrived with a 5-hour delay ..."
Tips to prevent pickpocketing and theft
The most important tip: leave your cash at home! Don't let anyone distract/approach you. Keep - now especially in coronavirus times - that 1.5-m distance. Do not put a mobile phone or wallet in your trouser pocket and carry your bag or purse with the opening at the front, not on your back. Keep useful numbers handy, such as your mobile phone's IMEI number (which appears when you dial *#06#) and the Card Stop number (070 344 344).
Still a victim?
If you happen to become a victim, contact the police as soon as possible and report the theft. Give them a clear description of what has been stolen and, if possible, the suspected perpetrator. Try to indicate as accurately as possible the exact time and place of the incident so that the police can work with the CCTV footage. Your help can prevent others from becoming victims that day too! Call in case of emergency:
- 101 for police
- the international emergency number 112
- Securail (0800 30 230), responsible for security in the NMBS/SNCB stations.
Visit www.besafe.be for more tips on how to prevent muggings and what you can do as a victim.
for more info on the international campaign, with the modus operandi of the six monsters, please visit www.stop-pickpockets.eu.