We’re driving, very slowly, through a housing estate in Hartlepool. It’s just before 3.30am and, unsurprisingly at this ungodly hour, the streets are deserted.
Except for a lone figure ahead of us skulking in allotments backing onto a row of houses, our third such sighting of the same man acting suspiciously in the vicinity.
When the person sitting next to me at the wheel, ex-store detective Terry Hughes, shines a torch at him from inside the car, he rides off on a mountain bike but not before the beam momentarily lights up his face.
‘I know him,’ Terry suddenly exclaims: ‘He’s a villain, a scumbag.’
Terry, it turns out, has ‘detained’ him several times at local stores in the past and ‘ended up on the floor’ during the ensuing struggle to stop him escaping with stolen goods. He’s not just guilty of ‘shoplifting’, Terry says, but also burglaries and car crime for which he has served time in prison.
Terry rings 101, the non-emergency number for the police, and passes on the name of the ‘suspect’, that he is a ‘known criminal’, as well as the location where he was last spotted, opposite the Stag And Monkey pub, on the corner of Belle Vue Way and Brenda Road.
The operator replies: ‘We’ll send a car around to take a look.’
Fifteen minutes pass, then 20 and 30. After nearly, 40 minutes, there’s still no sign of a patrol car.
No one expected otherwise, of course.
This is not meant to be a criticism of the overworked rank-and-file officers on the perilously thin blue line in Hartlepool; just a statement of fact, that on some nights, Hartlepool, County Durham, population 90,000, is left with just ten officers on duty at a time.
Terry Hughes, one of a band of Hartlepool residents who have taken measures to keep fellow residents safe by patrolling the streets wearing a bodycam
They say there are lies, damned lies and statistics, but there is only one way these statistics, revealed this week following a BBC investigation, can be interpreted and the implications are alarming.
Which brings us to the man sitting next to me in the car.
Terry, 53, a father and grandfather, should really be at home with his family. Instead, every night — yes, every night — for the past 14 weeks he and a small group of residents, both male and female, including a taxi driver, factory worker, IT specialist, and nightclub singer, patrol the suburb of Foggy Furze, keeping an eye on homes, businesses and vehicles and looking out for the elderly and vulnerable.
Why? Because they believe that crippling budget cuts mean the Cleveland force has now ‘given up’ responding to some calls.
These volunteers have been glibly called vigilantes, a word which has become synonymous with vengeful mobs dishing out rough justice.
‘We’re concerned citizens, not vigilantes, who want our children and grandchildren as well as our neighbours to feel safe,’ Terry says before I join him ‘on patrol’ in Foggy Furze in the small hours of Thursday morning. He is wearing a bodycam (wearable camera) and his saloon is fitted with a dashcam. ‘I also have a panic alarm in case I get into trouble,’ Terry explains. ‘It makes a deafening shriek if I pull the cord.’
Thankfully, he hasn’t needed to yet.
In the past year, Foggy Furze, so named because the neighbourhood originally sprung up around a farm (‘foggy’ is an old word for a place where coarse grass grows and ‘furze’ is another name for gorse), has averaged 200 crimes a month.
Not unrealistic, then, to expect a squad car to have at least shown up when Terry reported a notorious local burglar on the prowl in a residential street. But, there was little chance of that.
I saw only one police vehicle, heading out of Foggy Furze, during the time I was with Terry. But back at Hartlepool police station, no fewer than six police vans and seven police cars were parked up outside all night, with not a single officer in any of them. The explanation for that, if one was needed, was spelled out bluntly to a local businessman who wondered why no one had come to see him when the thieves who stole £1,500 of his tools were caught red-handed on CCTV.
‘I called the police straight away and went to the station the next day,’ he tells us.
‘But I was informed there were not enough police to cope and they had police cars without police to fill them.’
The strain on resources can only get worse. The custody suite in Hartlepool, where arrested people are dealt with, is shutting permanently. From early next year, they will be taken on an hour-long round trip to a purpose-built facility in Middlesbrough.
On a recent Saturday night, police admitted there were no officers free to respond to emergencies in Hartlepool.
Our own inquiries here have uncovered other worrying examples, such as officers taking between ‘one and two hours’ to answer a 999 call from a (pregnant) shop assistant during a raid on a convenience store last month and 45 minutes to attend the scene of a burglary in progress at a block of flats just round the corner from the police station itself.
Citizens like Terry Hughes are filling the vacuum in towns and cities all over the country. Nationwide, forces have lost 22,000 frontline officers.
The impact on Hartlepool, a town built on shipbuilding and steel, but in terminal economic decline since the Seventies, has been especially corrosive, contributing, many argue, to a sense of social disconnection — even from the rest of the North-East.
Today, one in ten people here do not have a job, double the national average. Eleven of Hartlepool’s wards are among Britain’s five per cent most deprived areas and there is still anger about the closure, seven years ago, of A&E at the University Hospital of Hartlepool which means a 30-minute drive, or a 90-minute bus journey, to Stockton for people with serious injuries.
Since then, Cleveland has lost 500 officers, leaving it with a uniformed force of 1,257. The results have been predictable. Overall, crime in Hartlepool between April 2017 and March 2018 rose by 19 per cent, according to the Office For National Statistics, with 10,757 incidents in total.
Meanwhile, less than nine per cent of robberies, burglaries, arson and criminal damage were solved, the Hartlepool Mail newspaper reported in June.
Cleveland Police chief constable Mike Veale has said the service his force is providing is ‘nowhere near where it needs to be’.
‘I would not be exhibiting the courage that my officers and staff deserve if I continue to say we have enough resources, if I continue with this commentary that things in policing are okay,’ he said in a statement yesterday.
‘They are not OK. The cuts created and caused by austerity are too deep and have gone on for too long. We have brilliant people doing a brilliant job, but we do not have enough of them and the facts speak for themselves.
‘It is about time that trend was reversed so that we can protect our communities, protect the most vulnerable and protect everyday people who go about their business and protect them with courage, kindness and compassion. My message is clear: give us the tools and we will do the job.’
Nothing illustrates more starkly what the reduction in police manpower means than events which unfolded in a parade of shops on Elwick Road in the heart of Foggy Furze last month.
They began on Friday, October 19, when a young man and woman robbed the McColl’s store, barging one female assistant out the way and forcibly removing another’s hands from the till, before escaping with a small amount of cash. ‘The women, both in their 50s, were scared to death,’ says a colleague. They dialled 999 at 6.30pm. ‘You expect a response straight away,’ she added.
In Cleveland, ten minutes is the target response for calls classed as ’emergency’ in an urban setting. Officers eventually turned up around two hours later at 8.30pm.
The following day, the pair struck at the Spar in nearby Oxford Road before returning to target McColl’s again 24 hours later. This time, officers arrived within an hour.
While they were taking statements and reviewing the CCTV, the culprits held up a third retailer in the neighbourhood, but were apprehended soon afterwards.
The almost farcical saga didn’t end there. On October 24, the serial robbers appeared in court. The woman was bailed in the morning. Her accomplice was due to be sentenced in the afternoon, but absconded at the lunch break.
Crimes in Hartlepool were committed near to the police station but officers did not turn up for up to two hours because they were so stretched
The two of them then carried out more robberies, at a newsagent’s in the afternoon, and a Premier store in the evening.
A 19-year-old who was ten weeks’ pregnant was behind the counter at the Premier branch. She was involved in a scuffle trying to stop them stealing from the cash machine and had to be taken to hospital as a precaution.
How long did the police take to respond? Up to two hours, apparently, but, mercifully, the couple have now been caught and are off the streets of Hartlepool.
Endless criminal activity like this on his doorstep — 20 cars were broken into in his own street in six months — persuaded Terry Hughes to start patrolling Foggy Furze and he was soon joined by two people he knew, taxi driver Stephen Picton and factory worker Darren Price. The Foggy Furze community watch, as they call themselves, now numbers seven.
Patrol volunteers and crime victims post nightly reports of incidents on a private Facebook page for residents.
Group secretary Tania Wilson compiles a weekly crime report. The one for November 11-18 reads: suspicious activity (7), public order (2), theft (2) criminal damage (3), attempted theft, burglary (2), assault with a knife.
What does Terry’s wife think about his role? ‘She’s petrified,’ he replied, though he explains that it often simply entails providing reassurance. He tells me about an old lady he once helped on his ’round’.
She was worried that two properties next to her had become vacant and could attract undesirables, so Terry slipped an envelope through her letterbox several times a night with his name written on it and the time he passed by to let her know everything was OK.
‘She’s quite happy now and doesn’t need me to do it any more,’ he said.
My tour of Foggy Furze begins just after 2.30am. Terry points to a block of flats shortly after we arrive on the estate. ‘It’s full of smackheads,’ he says.
The group’s weekly crime report also informs me that this is where a man in a dark tracksuit (slim, 5ft 10in) tried a front door handle at the weekend but fled when the dog barked. Up the road is where a resident had fishing tackle stolen from the boot of his car.
Terry says that the owner didn’t bother going to the police, but instead obtained CCTV film of the theft from a neighbour and the leisure centre nearby and posted the footage on Facebook.
Not long afterwards, his fishing tackle was found three miles away and returned to him.
Many of the properties have CCTV or burglar alarms or both; even the charity shops have security grills.
An earlier patrol in the evening, we learn en route, was eventful. Two youths on bikes were being monitored and one subsequently climbed on to the roof of a house. The suspected burglars were chased away and police attended promptly after both the ‘patrol’ and home owner dialled 999.
On Cornwall Street there is a Premier store which has also been hit. ‘It was held up at knifepoint last year,’ Terry reveals as he drives along this part of the estate, which he describes as a ‘hotspot.’
Another particularly nasty incident took place not far from here, in Stratford Road at 11pm last Sunday. It’s highlighted in the crime log, too. ‘Two males with balaclavas entered a property armed with knives. A male was slashed with a knife and beaten with a knuckle duster and a woman was knocked into a wall when she tried to intervene.’
The victims were Robbie Brown and girlfriend Toni Barnard. The couple were asleep when the masked intruders burst in.
Mr Brown, who works for a utility company, posted pictures of his injury on Facebook from his hospital bed appealing to anyone with relevant CCTV footage to get in touch.
‘We’re fine now,’ he told us. ‘Everything is fine. I just want to know what was behind it because it was such a random attack.’
It was about 3am, when we had our first sighting of the well-known local villain on his bike in Caledonian Road, although Terry did not recognise him until later.
He attracted our attention because it’s hard to imagine why anyone would be cycling through this neighbourhood at that time unless they were up to no good.
He popped up again down the side of the Greenside pub in Stockton Road before reappearing near allotments in Brenda Road when Terry calls the police.
Outside Hartlepool police station the following day, we’re greeted by a similar scene to the night before. Four patrol cars and three vans were parked up — all empty.
Additional reporting: Mark Branagan and Tim Stewart