Battle against Peterborough car crime doesn't sleep - we join police on early morning operation
While Peterborough slumbers, there is no time for sleep in the battle to reduce the rise in crime in the city.
Car criminals have been active over the winter, taking advantage of the cold dark nights, stealing anything they can get their hands on from unsecured cars.
There has been a noted rise in the south of the city, including in the Ortons and the Hamptons, with councillors and residents raising their concerns with police.
In an attempt to bring the thieves to justice, a team of plain clothes officers has been patrolling across the city in the small hours of the morning over the past couple of weeks, focusing on known crime hotspots.
Officers have now released an appeal to trace Paul Preistley, who is wanted for several offences of theft from a motor vehicle around the Peterborough area.
The Peterborough Telegraph joined Detective Sergeant Graham Clifton and his team on patrol this morning (Friday) as they hunted for the criminals - and kept residents' vehicles safe.
The operation started at midnight, but we joined the shift as one squad assembled just before 3am at Thorpe Wood Police Station. Officers from a number of teams, including special constables were all ready for the early morning duty.
About 10 officers have been out on patrol each night, with others back at the station monitoring CCTV in the area.
The nightly patrols are giving the officers the chance to put the crooks on the back foot, making it harder for them to find more victims.
This morning the focus is on the Hamptons, although officers were also posted in other areas of the city.
DS Clifton said: "Before we started these patrols, we were having eight to 10 thefts from cars every night.
"Now we are only having one or two, so they have been a big success."
While the number of thefts has been reduced, the team have so far not arrested anyone in connection with them - but they have a number of suspects they are after, who the team believe are responsible for a majority of the thefts.
DS Clifton added: "The reduction in thefts means our patrols have been noticed. We may be in plain clothes, but the message is out that we are here.
"The data we have on the thefts is that they are occurring between about 3am and 6.30am, when more people start to get up and go to work, so we are aiming the patrols at this time of the morning."
With the skies still pitch black, DS Clifton starts the patrols behind the wheel, driving to a number of spots in Hampton where loot has been left stored in the past.
The roads are - unsurprisingly - deserted, especially in the shadowy corners of Hampton.
The patrol continues into the heart of the housing estate, with DS Clifton looking for evidence of thieves' activity, dark corners of back streets - or for potential targets.
He said: "The MO (modus operandi) we have is the thieves are looking for unlocked cars. They will often try streets where there is a row of cars parked up, so they can try a number of car doors to see if they are unlocked.
"Some people think the thieves have a device which can unlock cars - but it generally seems to be they go for unlocked cars.
"It is easy to leave the car unlocked - either someone forgets, or sits on the fob, or even a child presses the button without anyone else knowing.
"The thieves are after anything they can get of value - even if it is of low value.
"When on patrol we are looking for cars with the boot or doors open, or a handbag on the floor. Sometimes they take what they want from the bag and leave the rest."
While the thieves' are using low tech methods to secure their haul of loot, officers are using equally old-school tactics to get ahead - good old fashioned leg work.
With two officers stationed in the car, we head out on foot, taking care not to slip on the frosty, deserted pavements as we cover a large area. Other officers are covering other parts of the neighbourhood.
As the time ticks by, there are more signs of life, with dog walkers venturing out, and people starting to head to work - but the crooks continue to evade the officers.
DS Clifton says the night has been quiet - even compared to previous nights.
He said: "The weather doesn't seem to make any difference to them. They are out in all conditions. They know we don't enjoy patrolling in the cold, but we are here. When it was windy the other night the bins were getting blown over, it sounded like car doors were being opened and shut."
As the first hint of daylight starts to creep into the night sky and the patrols - but not the officers' shifts - come to an end, there have been no thefts reported - but the culprits behind the spate remain at large.
DS Clifton said: "It is almost like a game. We are both trying to stay ahead. The fact we have reduced the number of thefts is good news, as there are fewer victims."
The patrols are set to continue while the culprits are still at large, and DS Clifton said there were a number of measures residents could take to make their car a harder target for the crooks.
He advised people to ensure they lock their car, and keep the fob out of reach of children and away from their front door. Items should not be kept in view in vehicles, while if possible, cars should be parked in well lit areas.
Anyone with information about thefts is asked to call Cambridgeshire police on 101, or Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.