Luxury watch thieves caught in London's dark alleys by police sting

Footage shows Met Police officers infiltrating criminal gangs intent on stealing expensive watches

London police use 'undercover victims' to sting luxury watch thieves

London police use 'undercover victims' to sting luxury watch thieves
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Police have released dramatic footage of undercover officers acting as bait to arrest gangs of thieves responsible for some of the £4 million ($5 million) worth of luxury watch robberies in central London.

The officers posed as members of the public wearing luxury watches and were targeted by gang members, who engaged them in conversation and then attempted to rip the timepieces from their wrists, before officers moved swiftly in to arrest the thieves.

CCTV footage of four robberies has been released by the Met Police at a time when the theft of luxury watches has been grabbing the headlines in the UK, with research showing the total value of the stolen items passing £1 billion in a year for the first time.

The operations were carried out in the Soho area of London, the centre of the UK capital’s nightlife, which has experienced a surge in thefts of luxury watches and where 40 per cent of all watch robberies in London take place.

Ben Russell, the Met Police’s commander for intelligence, described the officers as “courageous, calm under pressure and uniquely dedicated to the task” and whose work led to 21 robbers being convicted.

The robbers would lead or follow their victims to a quiet side street before grabbing them from behind and trying to grab their watch from their wrist.

Footage shows a gang member engaging the undercover officers in conversation before other criminals arrive and attempt to steal their watches.

Three hundred luxury watches were stolen in the central London boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea between April and September 2022, with a value of £4 million, by robbers waiting for suspects to leave venues between 11pm and 4am.

Officers from the Met Covert Policing Command and Central London Robbery teams set up two operations, which ran from October to December 2022 and March to October 2023 in Soho in the borough of Westminster.

The two operations resulted in 31 arrests over a 12-month period and 14 robbers have so far been sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison, with other cases pending.

Mr Russell said the Met used using intelligence and data to identify locations and times when these crimes were taking place and sent undercover officers there as part of what he described “our precision-based approach to fighting crime”.

“We could only put undercover officers into the area if we knew exactly when and where to deploy them,” he said.

“With this information around where these offences were taking place and what time, we brought in our covert teams.”

His colleague who is responsible for deploying the undercover officers said the robbers specifically target Westminster.

“They know Westminster is where people will travel to enjoy themselves and have a night out and some of those people will be wearing nice watches,” said Detective Sergeant Ben, whose surname was not revealed at a briefing.

The officer said there were different types of gangs and the ones that were arrested would have been opportunistic and without a specific target in mind but instead would have targeted the area to see who they could rob there.

“They identified and targeted vulnerable people,” he said.

Mr Russell would not be drawn on what brand of watches the officers were wearing but said “the criminals know how to spot a fake so they know what they’re looking for”.

He said the watches' visibility and ease by which they can be valued makes them a more attractive target for robbers compared to other valuables.

“There’s also something about looking for someone who is on their own at 2am, where you are unlikely to find someone wearing high-value jewellery,” he said.

He advised members of the public wearing luxury watches to be wary and wear long sleeves in the winter if possible to conceal their timepieces. Watches should all be photographed, insured and registered with specialist databases, he said.

He said: “I think the main thing is we don't want people fighting back because we don't want people to be seriously hurt or injured.”

Updated: January 17, 2024, 7:57 AM