Saturday, 13 February 2010

Visit from the Trojans

Saturday night. Midnight. We’ve been to the cinema, paid the babysitter and now we’re having a cup of tea and watching Match of the Day. All is quiet. All is normal.
The doorbell rings. I assume the babysitter must have forgotten something and go and answer the door. Nope. Standing on the doorstep is a policeman. Behind him are some other men - quite a few other men. What the hell?

Quite a few thoughts come into your head when a policeman turns up on your doorstep on midnight. Two struggle for dominance in mine - how good-looking he is – mmmm - the other, slightly slower: ‘Oh no…who’s died?’

No one, it turns out. Instead he wants to ask about our car. Can I tell him the make and model? Has anyone used it today?

It must have been stolen…oh no…but he assures me it is still parked up the road. And how fortunate it was that we hadn’t taken it to the cinema with us. “An identical car with your number plates was used in a shooting incident in Harlesden this evening,” he explains. “We’ve been watching your house and the car. We felt the engine - luckily it was stone cold. If it’d been warm we wouldn’t have rung your doorbell, we’d have broken the door down.”

It's at this point that I realise that he's armed.

Gorgeous uniformed armed cop stands aside to let three plain clothes officers from Harlesden into our house. I wouldn’t have realised they were policemen at a first glance - or a second one, they’d got the scruffy London street look just right. In fact if I’d seen them hanging around our car, I’d have called the police. I wonder if they’d watched us come into the house, seen the babysitter leave. It seems likely because they explain that it wasn’t just the cold engine that had spared us from having the door broken down and guns pointed at our heads. “It’s lucky you’re not black,” they explain. “The people who committed this crime were black. So we were pretty sure you were in the clear.”

So, we’d been saved from a traumatic experience and a broken down door (the second in less than a year) by the random decision to drive our other car to the cinema, and the colour of our skin. Great. But this may not save us from encounters with armed police in the future. Now our car had been cloned by criminals it would be on the police national computer, they explain. It was possible that when we were driving we’d notice that we were being tailed by the police.

“If so, pull over and call 999,” they tell us. “Explain what’s happened and give them the crime number. If you don’t…well, the police will know that you might have firearms with you. They’ll call for armed back-up. And they’ll stop you, and it won’t be nice.”

Wild memories of the hideous death of Jean-Charles Menezes flash through my mind. London lost some of its innocence the day an innocent Brazilian was killed at close range on the tube by bungling police officers who thought he was a terrorist on the basis of no evidence at all. And, I also remember the death of Harry Stanley, shot by police marksmen in Hackney who thought the chair leg he was carrying in a plastic bag was a shotgun.

“Will they shoot us?” I ask. The officers rush to reassure me. No, no, it’ll just be a case of a gun being poked through the car window, and being ordered out of the car for a search. “They should realise that you weren’t the people involved,” one adds. “After all you’re not black.”

The next day we look up car-cloning on the internet - it’s a growing problem in the UK, although most victims are bugged by unpaid parking tickets and speeding fines. One man whose clone was used in an armed robbery had to spend five hours at the police station proving his alibi.

We discuss our options. We could sell the car - but wasn’t that unethical? What if a black person bought it and got shot? We could buy personalised number plates - ‘but all your friends will despise you’ said a helpful pal, pointing out that, however good the reason, personalised plates are impossibly vulgar. I'm quite entertained by the possibilities of horrifying my social circle, but my husband points out that chav-tastic plates cost money, and he doesn’t see why we should fork out because some villain in Harlesden had re-produced our plates. He's very pleased with himself for being the one who decided to drive the other car to the cinema, even though he couldn't have possibly known he was making a great decision.

So he’s been on the phone to the licensing people in Swansea, who seem quite sympathetic and we’re hoping for a new number and brand new plates. He also visits our local police station who confirm that we were quite likely to experience a ‘hard stop’ from a ‘Trojan unit’ - this is what he swears they called the armed police, although I think he must be winding me up and now all I can imagine is a troop of officers, with model good looks, waving condoms in the air. A bit like the police float at the Amsterdam Gay Pride parade, which takes place on the canals in August and was always a great family day out.

This week every time I take the car out I spend the first ten minutes glancing into my mirror to see if I am being followed. Then I forget all about it, until I park – there’s a slight Thelma and Louise vibe to the way I make a swift exit.

My 10-year-old son is quite excited by the idea of a ‘hard stop’. We had to warn him not to make any sudden movements.
“But what if I have an itch?” he said.
“Stay still.”
“But what if I really have to scratch?”
“Stay still.”

But so far, not a sniff of a police tail. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not.

Several people have remarked this week on the co incidence that I've written a book about violent crime and identity. My sister mused:"It's almost like you attract shooting incidents. It's's not even as though you need more excitement in your life, because you're making it all up for your books anyway."

I fear this post may need a follow up in the future. I'm hoping it'll just be the good news that our car has its very own extreme makeover and new name.


  1. Wow! Scary, but at least they took a measured approach, which I'm sure so many people would believe they are incapable of doing.

    And... that has to count as good reseach for a future novel, surely?

    (Every cloud has a silver lining, and all that!)

  2. Surreal. Scary. For the first time ever I'm glad I don't live in London. Do keep us all posted and take care.

  3. Plain clothes police do look rather scruffy, don't they? After the neighbours were burgled, and I was the one who got involved (they were in the Galapagos islands), I noticed two very unpleasant looking men parking their car, blocking our drive, and getting out and coming up our drive and ringing the door bell. Had I not happened to be dusting the front room windowsill at the time and been noticed by them, I would never have opened the door.
    And then they turned out to be the police.

  4. Bloody hell Keren! Drama! An extreme makeover for your car sounds like a VERY good idea. At least the nice policeman was yummy though. There's always a bright side, isn't there?

  5. Whoa!

    Sounds like something from an episode of Miami Vice!(Umm... does that date me?)

    First time I saw Brit armed police was in Liverpool city centre after the Manchester bombing. Totally freaked me out. They were strutting along, looking serious and muttering away to each other. Being a lunatic, I was curious to know what top-secret operation the were talking about. After manoeuvrings myself alongside them James Bond style, I was bitterly disappointed to realise they were talking about the latest happenings on Coronation Street! *sigh*

    Glad door and car and you guys are safe. Hope the new plates come through soon!

  6. Eek - Drama! An extreme car makeover sounds like a very good idea.

  7. Keren
    The quiet life eludes you.
    I'd be investing in a nice little electric car with a hair dryer for an engine!

  8. Your experience just keeps bringing Jean Charles Menezes to mind for me. The response strikes me as so totally over the top. You are not black - and anyone surveilling you would see that - so why the "hard stop" approach? The police are surely there to make you feel safe, not threatened and threatened is what you now feel. I can't help but think something's gone a bit out of whack.
    As for the plates, I hope you're able to get new ones because I agree, personalised plates are totally vulgar, but in the long run, they might save you some heartache if you can't get regular replacements.

  9. That's scary. Never knew there was such a thing as car-cloning before. Hopefully American criminals are too dim-witted to pick up on this trick. Hope you manage to avoid any future tangles with the police!

  10. Absolutely terrifying! And what if you were black? So very very scary.

    One suggestion... Maggie Stiefvater, American author of the bestseller Shiver, promised herself a new paint job if her book did well. When it hit the bestseller list, she went for the personalised plates, too. I think it's gorgeous:

  11. I think the whole question of our colour is outrageous really - I mean there are thousands of black people in London, surely the police have to be more specific before they stop people. And I imagine the criminals have disposed of our number plates by now, so there should be something on the police national computer to say the car was cloned and that it's very unlikely that it's got firearms in it.
    On the other hand if they didn't take any action and then the clone was used in another shooting and soemone got killed I suppose they would be culpable. It's a tough one.

  12. A good piece of writing and a sad indictment of our times.

  13. It all sounds very unsettling. I suspect that they should be rather more sympathetic towards you. I'd be tempted to go and have a little chat with a lawyer to find out where you stand.

  14. Our plan is first DVLA, and if that's no good then go to our MP. The local police station were quite helpful too. And in a week no one's followed us. So..fingers crossed...

  15. Ohmigod! What a drama! That's really scary. Yet you still make it sound hilarious.

    I got quite carried away imagining what personalised plate you could get!

    Rapunzel x

  16. Dramatic indeed, however, I feel you're having a pop at the Rozzers on this one somehow, and I don't know why? Did I read it wrongly?
    It's very "in" to be intolerant of the police and always has been. As the visible end of state control, they are the guys and gals who have to face down the crack addicts and gangsters, often with only a truncheon, a Political Correctness handbook and strong words. And what do we do? We deride their role in anything that inconveniences us with the words, "Haven't they got anything better to do?".
    Did they know the Gang weren't in your house? What if they were holding you hostage? If they make a mistake, it's often paid for with their lives or serious injury, or at best a suspension and loss of pay.
    Am I ranting? I apologize, I just feel sorry for the Boys (and girls) in blue who always seem to get it in the neck if something goes wrong.
    We all remember Jean-Charles Menezes but who remembers the name of the last policeman or woman who was killed in the line of duty?
    Right, I'm off my orangebox now. Sorry if I carried on. I'll go then...

  17. I'm not really having a pop at them - except that I think they are too keen to label people by the colour of their skin. I accept that they have to do their utmost to protect the public from the danger of firearms. Thankfully they used their brains and checked out the car, before breaking down the door and bursting into the house. And they've had a week to follow/stop us and nothing's happened. If I were black though I don't think I'd feel so equitable about the situation.

  18. I do go off on one, don't I? lol.
    I'm sorry Keren, but I've a lot of friends in the coppers and I feel very protective towards the Boys (and Girls) in Blue. I'm also shocked at some of the stories I hear about how the public treat them, which is really sad because this may sound stupid but they do actually care about the communities they police. They're not all racist bigots, I can assure you. There are bad apples in every profession but I don't think even the Taliban have as much bad press as the police.
    Never mind, thank you for being gracious enough to answer my post, and not simply consigning it to the mountain of dross and spam in the comment rejection pit. :-)