Somebody Else's Problem - John C. Kirk
May. 24th, 2008
03:07 pm - Somebody Else's Problem
A few months ago, it was quite windy in London. I was on my way to the regular SJA class night (on foot), and I noticed that a few temporary road signs had been blown into the middle of the road. I assumed that one of the drivers would stop to move them out of the way, but instead someone drove over the top, and wound up dragging the sign under his car. As I watched that happen, I just thought "Tch, that was a stupid thing to do". Another pedestrian then came running up, and went onto the road to move the signs out of the way. As he went past me, he criticised me for just standing there and watching, rather than doing anything to help. He was absolutely right: I should have done something, but it didn't even occur to me to get involved. As for his criticism, my initial reaction was to get defensive, before I'd even thought about it. Ultimately, there was no harm done, but it does bother me that my instincts have changed over the last few years.
A few weeks ago, I was lying in bed at about 3am, and I heard people shouting as they walked past outside, probably on their way back from nightclubs. That's pretty common, so I didn't bother looking out of my window, I just waited for the noise to die down. As they got further away, their voices got quieter, but I could tell that some of them were shouting. Then their voices got louder again, so I finally looked outside to see what was going on. (Although this was in the middle of the night, the streetlights gave a "perma-noon" effect, so I could see everything that happened.) There were about a dozen guys in their early 20s, chasing someone else down the road. When he fell over, the others moved in to start kicking him, and at least one of them had a big bat. He got up again before he was surrounded, and ran around the corner, so the others all followed him, and that was the last I saw of them. Again, I didn't do anything about this. There were some other people outside, who saw more than I did, and interestingly the gang completely ignored them. I'm guessing that one of them called the police, because a car turned up outside a little bit later; it sat there with blue lights flashing for a while, then left. If I'd been more alert, I think the best approach would have been for me to run downstairs and open my front door so that the guy being chased would have a safe refuge, then I could call the police.
More recently, I was on duty at a 5-a-side football game, and someone left his mobile phone in his jeans while he went on the pitch. He came back a bit later and retrieved it, although I didn't pay much attention to him. In fact, the real owner came back a bit later, and discovered that his phone was missing. I felt rather embarrassed about this, because I'd stood right there and watched the thief take it; I just assumed that it was his (and I'm sure that he would have said "yes" if I'd asked him). There were a few police officers in the park, so they came over to take some details. Again, I felt a bit stupid when I couldn't give any sensible description of the thief. It wasn't my responsibility to guard the phone, but I think the main lesson here is that I should be more observant, and keep track of what people look like.
Anyway, this is all leading up to something that happened last night. I got back home at about 11pm, and saw a guy doing something with some bikes. As I approached, I saw that he was standing astride one, and was holding another one on end, i.e. front wheel on the ground and back wheel near his head. I asked whether he was ok, and he said something that was unclear (I think he was drunk). When I got closer, I saw that the second bike was locked to a Sheffield stand, i.e. one of the U-shaped stands that's embedded in the ground. I then asked "Is that your bike?", and he replied "Move on, or I'll break your fucking legs." Charming.
Rather than going inside, I walked a bit further down the street, and phoned the local police station. I told them what had happened, and that I could still see the guy. The dispatcher said that she'd send a unit out; I asked whether I should hang around to give a statement, and she that it was up to me, but that I needed to watch out for my own safety. A few minutes later, I saw the guy walk away, pushing his bike with his right hand and carrying two wheels in his left hand. I watched him go, so that I could point the police in the right direction when they arrived, but I didn't follow him. Five minutes after that, I saw him cycle past in the opposite direction, without the extra wheels. I waited another ten minutes, but no police car arrived, so I went indoors. The police have my name and phone number, but they haven't phoned me back (yet) to get a statement.
So, the upshot is that I watched someone commit a crime, and get away with it. I don't blame the police at all; at that time on a Friday night, I'm sure that there will be plenty of pissheads starting fights in the town centre, so they'll be busy elsewhere. Even if they weren't, they'd have to be very close by to actually reach the scene before he left. I gave them a description over the phone, but I don't know whether I'd be able to positively identify the guy in a line-up, particularly if he was wearing different clothes.
So, what could I have done differently? The only other options I can see would involve violence, or at least the threat of it. From a pacifist point of view, I probably did the right thing: nobody got hurt, and property can be replaced. Since it wasn't even my property, it's not my problem. However, I don't think that's much consolation to the person who owns the bike.
I was in a similar situation four years ago, where some guys told me to keep walking or they'd "do me over". Back then, I was concerned that if I walked away then I'd be endorsing their behaviour, making them more likely to do it again. I think there's a similar risk here: while I was on the phone to the police, the (alleged) bike thief went over to talk to a couple of other guys at the bus stop, and it sounded as if he was boasting about how successful his threat was. If I'd stayed to confront him, there would be two potential goals:
a) I could try to get him away from the bike. That would have the advantage that I'd be in a defensive role, so I wouldn't have to initiate any violence myself. On the other hand, even if he left, he might come back later: how long would I need to stay there, guarding it? Bear in mind that the police didn't turn up while I was waiting nearby, and even if they did turn up after he'd left, they wouldn't be able to do anything.
b) I could try to restrain him until the police arrived. I'm a bit hazy on the whole "citizen's arrest" thing, so I'd potentially be breaking the law myself by doing that. I'm not particularly worried about the possibility of going to prison, but I have to get CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks done every few years for SJA, and I'd prefer not to get kicked out of the organisation. On a more pragmatic level, I'm also not sure whether I would have been able to hold him: he was a bit shorter than me, a bit stockier (I'm not sure how much was fat vs muscle), a bit older, and probably drunk. However, I'm certainly not in peak physical condition, and I haven't been in a fight since I was at school; also, he may have been armed, and it turned out that he had two friends nearby.
Another option would be to take a photo of him, which I could then give to the police. In theory, that's a non-violent action, but I think he'd treat it as provocation, so it would still wind up in a fight, or with me running away. In a way, it's unfortunate that I lived so close by, because I didn't want to draw attention to that by going straight indoors. ("There's my window, please throw a brick through it.") I could take a scenic route by going round the block, but then I'd be trying to outrun someone on a bicycle. This may be an argument in favour of CCTV cameras, but people keep complaining about those on the basis of privacy and civil liberties.
So, what's the solution? I don't know. If I will literally stand and watch while someone commits a crime, saying "Gosh, this is a terrible reflection on the modern world, tut tut" then I might as well just start reading the Daily Mail. On the other hand, if I advocate vigilante justice then you wind up with gang violence, where people are stabbed for minor infractions, so the cure is worse than the disease.
Anyway, I think this justifies my preference for a folding bike over a conventional type. If I had a traditional bike, that stand would be the obvious place for me to keep it, since it's within sight of my flat and it's permanently embedded in the concrete. Also, the bike was secured with a shackle lock, which is supposed to be one of the best types. The lock was used to attach the central frame to the stand, which left the wheels vulnerable. However, even if the wheels were chained separately, that wouldn't stop someone from taking the handlebars or the saddle. It's quite common to see just a frame left in a cycle rack, where every other removable part has been taken (including the pedals).