Stealer's wheel

Today I discovered that the front wheel of my bike had been stolen. It must have been an easy crime to carry out; the bike was parked at Oxford train station with just the frame locked to the stand. It probably only took the thief a few minutes to get the wheel off.

I was tempted not to bother reporting it to the police because I know very well that I won’t get the wheel back, but I decided I didn’t want this crime, however small, to be invisible.

Last time I tried to report a cycling-related crime was many years ago, when a driver tried to run me off the road. Thames Valley Police told me then that I would have to visit the station to report the crime in person. (I didn’t bother.)

I assumed the same rule would apply this time, so today I walked to Cowley police station. When I explained what had happened, the man behind the front desk asked “Just the wheel?” and then told me I couldn’t report the crime to him directly. I would have to go into a cubicle and report the crime using the phone. I said “If I’d known you’d make me report it over the phone, I wouldn’t have bothered walking here!” and he apologetically replied “You don’t have to dial a number, just pick up and it goes straight through,” as if that was compensation for my wasted 40-minute walk. As I picked up the phone, he pushed some paperwork under the cubicle’s Plexiglass.

The man on the phone tried to be helpful. After asking “Just the wheel?” and receiving confirmation that yes, I was indeed choosing to report the theft of just a wheel, he asked me some questions. Some were pretty standard, but others caused problems.

“When was the wheel stolen?” I couldn’t remember when I’d left the bike, but I know it was weeks ago, and I couldn’t remember when I’d last checked it. If I’d been at home, unflustered, with my diary to hand, I could have answered that question a lot more accurately.

“How much was the wheel worth?” Well, the wheel itself was pretty old, so it probably has a negligible value in itself, but last time I had to replace a vandalised wheel it cost me £35. I couldn’t tell if he wanted me to specify replacement value or actual value, and of course I couldn’t see what he was writing down. So I don’t know if my stolen wheel will count in the crime statistics as £35-worth of crime or £0-worth of crime.

At the end of the call I was given a temporary crime number. The man on the phone explained that a theft from the railway station is actually a problem for British Transport Police rather than Thames Valley Police, and he would be passing my details on to them. They’ll then contact me with a new crime number.

As I left the station, I tried to clarify with the other desk sergeant what the procedure is for reporting crimes. Could I ring up from home in future, or was the station phone some kind of special hotline that can’t be rung from outside? She explained that non-emergency crimes can be reported using the usual non-emergency phone number, but road accidents are the exception and you do have to attend the station for those.

Serious crimes are handled differently, and I’m glad of that. It would be devastating to be mugged, stagger into a police station and then be told to use a phone to report it. But Thames Valley Police really needs to improve the user experience of people reporting non-emergency crimes. Here’s how.

Give us a webpage

The TVP website does have an FAQ section, but it’s very hard to find an answer to the question “How do I report a non-emergency crime?” I’d like to see a webpage devoted to answering that question, explaining that:

  • You can report all such crimes over the phone using the non-emergency number (0845 8 505 505 at present, though this may change soon).
  • If you visit a police station to report it, you’ll be asked to report it over the phone anyway, so there’s no point visiting the station unless you don’t have a working phone. The only exception is road accidents (followed by a brief explanation of what qualifies as a road accident).
  • You can report the crime online.
  • You will be given a crime number, so have a pen and paper ready.

The webpage should also explain how the police define a non-emergency.

Give us signage and literature

The first clue I got that I could only report the crime using a phone was when the desk sergeant told me so. I saw no signs explaining this, no clues in the layout of the reception area. It’s clear that in the minds of the police, incidents of this type are on a different “track”, so why not communicate that visually? Of course, it would have been even better to know that before I made a wasted journey; police literature is a golden opportunity to reduce confusion.

Give us a seat

I had to stand to make the call and lean on the front desk to write down the crime number. Please think about people who have difficulty standing and provide a seat by the phone. Also, wheelchair users will need something to lean on as they write, because the desk is the wrong height.

Tell us more about how you think

I know that police procedure differentiates between crimes happening right this minute and crimes that happened at some point recently. But if you come back from holiday to find your house burgled, you won’t necessarily appreciate why that’s different from seeing burglars leaving your house. You just know it’s a serious, upsetting crime and it’s happened to you. Public education about the difference between “emergency” and “non-emergency” would make a big difference. There would be fewer complaints about police responding too slowly and fewer unnecessary 999 calls.

Tell us more about what you want

I don’t know what information the police need when they’re recording a minor theft. I was expecting to be asked about the make of bike and exactly which part of the train station it was left in, but I wasn’t. Instead I was asked about the date the theft happened and the value of the wheel. I could have answered these questions a lot more accurately if I’d been prepared for them.

Tailor the paperwork

I was given a four-page leaflet, clearly written with victims of more serious crimes in mind, and asked to fill in a section requiring six pieces of information. I assumed I had to hand it in and was anxious when the call ended before I'd been given all the information the leaflet required. I didn’t realise that in my case, the only piece of information I would be given was the crime number. I also didn’t realise that the form was just for me to take home, so nobody cared whether I filled it in correctly or not.

Show some empathy

Yes, it is “just” a wheel, and maybe next it’ll be “just” a lost mobile phone. But everybody who walks through that door is there because they believe what’s happened is important enough to report to the police. Don’t forget that.


Pete (not verified)

Wed, 2011-09-07 09:36

The police are penalised for making it easy to report crimes, especially the sort they will never be able to clear up, as that makes their reported/clearedup ratio worse. The hostile arrangements may be deliberate.

A few weeks ago the stem of my bike was stolen from my bike as it was attached to racks outside my office. I disocvered it when I finished work for the day and was about to ride it home. The handlebars were hanging on by just the cables. Like you, I walked to the police station only to be told to use a phone to call a call centre to register the theft. I was told that theft of parts of bicycles is on the increase.

This revealed several things, one of which was the police had no intention whatsoever of doing anything about it. They did not ask me which cycle rack the incident occurred, so I know they are not gathering statistics on where thefts occur so they can tell peope which racks to avoid. They did not take prints form my bike, so they would not be able to match the perpetrator to the bike even if they caught someone with a dodgy bike stem to sell. They did not interview the street drunks who were gathered in the doorway of the homeless shelter next to the rack, who probably witnessed the theft.

I realize tracking down the person who vandalized my bike is not feasible, but they could have been gathering statistics and erecting signs next to unsafe racks saying they are unsafe.