Notes from the Frontline: The Belgian Bike Burglar

By Matt Delito on at

As the bike shop owner was reading out the description, we were going through a red light, sirens blaring. Kim suddenly made a squeaking sound, and pointed at the intersection we had just gone through. I slammed on the brakes, and looked. True enough, there he was. Bright red T-shirt with a white logo on the front, and a bike that was gleaming in the bright midday August sun.

Due to the riots, our shift patterns have been completely out of whack. Usually, we work six days on, four days off, but that was suspended as soon as mask-clad hoodlums started roaming the streets. Things got extra-tense for a while, when a rumour was spreading that the army was mobilising to help 'sort out the mess', but I have to admit I was a little bit doubtful about the veracity of that particular rumour - I've never done any military service (believe it or not, I'm quite a fervent pacifist and a bit of a leftie to boot), but I think the military is a strange choice, when we have a small army of police with guns who they've kept hidden in our police stations whilst the riots were kicking off as worst. It was weird - walking into the café at our police station station, you'd have thought you'd have walked into a war; except the war was raging outside, and the only people with weapons that are actually scary were sitting in the café, playing cards, reading books, and looking utterly bored. Meanwhile. people with sticks and shields were trying to calm people with stones and petrol bombs.

Anyway, I try to stay out of the politics of things - it's particularly hard after I started writing this blog, because I keep getting media requests to comment about things that are way above my pay grade. I see a lot of my colleagues getting despondent about how the senior management team (SMT) 'work against us', but I doubt that's the case. I have to believe that even the SMT are doing their jobs to the best of their ability, even though their choices are sometimes the direct opposite of how the frontline responders would have prioritised things. I think I see it as more of a challenge. If you're a carpenter that's told you have to build a house without using any nails, there are three things you can do: Bitch and moan about it but get on with your job. Try and change the policies, and get on with your job. Or simply see it as a challenge, stay upbeat, and get creative. And get on with your job. I suppose there's a fourth choice as well: Start a religion. Sadly, the last one only works for carpenters, not for police officers.

All of this was meant to be a simple explanation for why I was bloody knackered as this 12-hour shift was coming to an end. It was one of the last shifts on this pattern, before we were to resume our usual shift rota, so we were all running at about 60% mental capacity. It's a difficult time to be policing, because in many of the situations we run into, you've really got to have your wits about you.

"Two-Six receiving Mike Delta", my radio buzzed, as I was slumped in the driver seat of the Astra, parked in a employees-only car-park behind a local shopping centre. Kim was snoozing in the seat next to me.

"Two-six. Two-six. Are you receiving Mike Delta", the radio buzzed again.

"Shit, that's us". I shook my head. Had I been sleeping? I looked down at my hand, where my coffee cup was precariously balanced on my lap, nearly - but not quite - tipping its scalding hot contents onto my leg. I straightened the cup carefully, and reached for the PTT lever on the dash.

"Yeah, Two-six receiving. Apologise for the delay", I added, "I was on a private call". I immediately regretted lying to the CAD operator. They, and everybody else who had overheard that conversation, would know it was a lie - Nobody ever apologises for delays in getting back to the CAD operator; either you respond in good time, or you're too busy to respond (for example, if you're in the middle of an arrest) and you'll call up as soon as you can.

"Er, Yeah. Right. We've had a call about a theft. Shoplifter. You guys free?"

"At your service!", I said brightly, and saw Kim stretch and yawn next to me, before she zipped her metvest closed and put her seatbelt on.

"Great, on its way to your MDT", the operator said, as the Mobile Data Terminal in our car used its ghastly pre-recorded voice to announce that the CAD had been updated.

Kim pressed the touch-screen on the MDT. "The Bike Shack in Main Street have detained a shoplifter, apparently, but then he got away", she said.



"Call the bike shop, get a description", I replied, and flicked the blue lights on as I placed my coffee cup in the car's cupholder. We weren't that far away from Main Street.

"He was wearing a bright red T-shirt", I heard Kim's radio say. She had made the call on speaker phone, so she wouldn't have to relay the description to me later. Clever. "And riding a very distinctive bike. It's a large-tubed bike, but the owner has taken all the paint off, sand-blasting the tubes to bare aluminium".

As the bike shop owner was continuing with his description, we were going through a red light, sirens blaring. Kim suddenly made a squeaking sound - she does that, when she can't think of words to describe what's going on - and pointed at the intersection we had just gone through. I slammed on the brakes, and looked. True enough, there he was. Bright red T-shirt with a white logo on the front, and a bike that was gleaming in the bright midday August sun. He was calmly stopped, letting us fly through the intersection unimpeded.

"I'll call you back", Kim snapped at the bike shop owner, cancelled the call, and got straight back on the radio.

"Mike Delta receiving Two-Six", she said.

"Go ahead"

"We see a possible suspect for our bike theft, he's crossing Main Street at Upper Street, going east. We're just spinning the car around now. He's wearing a red tee, and is riding an aluminium-coloured bike", she said.

"Any units in the area who can assist with the last", the operator said.

"Show six-eight", came a gruff voice I recognised as Simon. "One minute.", he added. Six eight is the caged van we use for transporting prisoners. Excellent.

I could hear Simon's sirens come on at the far side of Upper Street, just as I had managed to turn my Astra around. I half expected a bit of a chase, but the cyclist simply stopped, pulling his bike half up on the pavement to let us pass him. He seemed a little bit confused when we came to a stop next to him.

Kim leapt out of the car, and took a firm grip of his bike, before asking him to please wait there. Simon arrived not ten seconds later, and stepped out of the van as well, along with his operator.

"Hi there", Kim said. "Do you know why we've stopped you?"

"I suspect it is because of my bike", he said.

"That's correct, Kim said. Do you know why, specifically?"

"I'm guessing because I just took it from the bike shop up the road", he said.

"Did you have permission to take the bike? A test ride, perhaps?", Kim said.

"No", he said, and I saw Kim start reaching for her hand-cuffs. "It's my bike though. It was stolen from me".

"Riiii-ight", Kim said. "Well, we still need to figure out exactly what has happened. I'm arresting you for theft; the arrest is necessary in order to assure a prompt and effective investigation. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you don't mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence".

"Yeah, yeah. But I can explain..." the man said.

"Time of arrest is 11:46", Kim said, as she wrote the time of arrest on the back of her hand.

Simon tapped my shoulder and beckoned me to step aside for a second.

"Cells are full, mate. We just had to take someone to Yankee Romeo, and that was the last of their cells, as well - I have a feeling we'll be taking bodies to Essex next." he said. Yankee Romeo is the borough code for Haringey - and it's nowhere near our own borough. No big surprise: Our borough was doing a series of dawn raids at houses of the people who had been identified from the CCTV during the riots. However, having to take our prisoner all the way outside the Metropolitan Police area because the cells are full would be a royal pain; not least because there was only fifteen minutes left of my shift, and a trip to Essex would mean several hours overtime. Usually, I'd welcome the overtime for the wage bump it implies, but after my tenth straight 12-hour shift, I'd gladly have paid to be able to go home and sleep for a few days.

"I don't really fancy a two-hour round-trip", I said. Simon grunted in agreement.

"Kim", I said, "Can you put the guy in the cage for now, I'm going to try and find out what we need to do with him".

Kim started leading our prisoner to the back doors, as Simon took the bike and put it in the middle section of the van. I reached for my radio.

"Is there a duty skipper available", I called.

"Unit calling for duty skipper", replied the CAD operator, "Please call up Mike Delta eight-eight".

"Received", I transmitted. "Eight Eight receiving five-nine-two".

"88 receiving, go ahead"

"Spare please"

"Changing", the sergeant replied. I changed my radio to the spare channel.

"Mike Delta 592 receiving"

"Hi skip, I'm here. Hey, we've just arrested a suspected bike thief, but he claims the bike is his"


"Well, I was just wondering if it would be OK to take him to the bike shop and see if we can square things up there; I don't really fancy a trip to Essex"

"The clock's running, Matt", the sergeant said, his voice garbled with exhaustion. Someone told me that 88 had just finished an 18 hour shift, had six hours sleep, before going straight in for another 14 hours. Some of the skippers were completely unstoppable. The clock he was referring to is the force target of getting prisoners to custody within an hour of arrest, "but yeah, knock yourself out", he added, "Keep me posted."

"Thanks Sarge", I said.

"Out", he replied, and vanished from the spare channel.


Squaring things up

I walked to the back of the police van.

"What's your name, mate", I said.

"It's Case Jacobs", he said.

"Case?", I replied. "Unusual name, where's that from?"

"It's spelled K-E-E-S", he said. I'm from Belgium.

"Nice to meet you, Kees", I said. "Normally, we'd have taken you straight to a police station, but I propose we go talk to the bicycle shop owner first. Is that OK by you?"

"Of course", he said.

"Good" I said, and closed the back doors on the caged Transit van, before throwing the car keys to Kim, and climbing in the side door.

Simon and Kim drove the van and the panda to the bike shop, whilst I had a quick chat with Kees, in the back of the Transit van.

"So, what happened, then?"

"I went into the bike shop to buy a new lock, as my last one was cut in half by the thieves, and I saw my bike there! I told the shop owner, but he said it wasn't my bike and that I couldn't have it back. So I took it."

"How can you know it's your bike?", I asked.

"Look at it!", he laughed, "Have you ever seen a bike like that? I fixed it up myself", he said. "There's no way that's not my bike. I changed the seat, and I can tell you every detail of every part of that bike." he said, before going into a monologue about the various bits and pieces he had used to make it 'the perfect bike'. "It has Shimano XTR components all around, even the chain", he said, "but I blasted off the markings so thieves wouldn't see them", he said.

I took a closer look at the bike; true enough, every part was gleaming from having been sand-blasted, and no markings were visible anywhere.

"That puts us in a bit of a weird situation, though", I said. "You say you've done it so thieves won't know that the bike is valuable, right?", I asked. Kees replied with a nod. "But that's a pretty common thing for thieves to do as well, so owners won't recognise their own bikes..."

We arrived at the bike shop.

"Hang on here for a second", I told Kees. "I'm just going to have a chat with the owner". I turned to Kim, who just finished calling in an update about our situation. "Wanna keep our friend company?" I asked.

"Yeah sure", she said, and walked to the back of the van, opening one of the doors to give our prisoner some fresh air.

I walked into the bike shop. The owner was there, looking none-too-pleased.

"Took you fucking long enough", he said.

"True", I said, "But we caught the guy"

The shopkeeper took a double take, then leaned forward and looked at the van. He couldn't see into it.


"Yeah, we found him as he was cycling along, so we stopped him"

"Wow, that's great!"

"One little thing, though, he says the bike is his."

"Yeah, he told me the same", the shopkeeper said. "But no no way. Some kid brought it in the other day to get a flat tyre fixed."

"In your opinion", I said, "is that a valuable bike?"

"It's a funny one", the shopkeep said. "It's a pretty standard Cannondale. They're popular bikes, but it's a mid-range bike, not usually particularly expensive. This particular one has had just about every component upgraded, though - high-end everything."

"Did you do the upgrades?", I asked.

"Nope", he replied. "I've never seen the bike before."

"Is it hard to replace a flat tyre?", I asked.

"No! Not at all."

"It seems to me that this bike would have been owned by a bike lover, wouldn't you say?"

"Yeah, definitely. It came in super-clean. Seems as if the kid really loved his bike, definitely kept it in pristine condition."

"So, someone who is a huge bike fan, wouldn't they replace their own inner tubes?", I asked.

"Yeah, I suppose so. But people are weird, y'know", he shrugged.

"I don't suppose you have CCTV", do you?

"Are you joking? We're CCTV'd to the rafters. I've got several bikes in here that are worth tens of thousands of pounds; no way I wouldn't have CCTV", he said. "In fact, I already took a look at the footage of the guy who brought the bike in, and of the fellow who nicked it."

"Can I have a look", I said.

"Sure", he replied, and waved me to the back of the shop.



It took me all of six seconds of the first video to recognise the lad who had brought the bike in for repair.

"I've got some bad news for you," I said. "That's Tommy, he's a crack-head and a notorious bike thief 'round here."

"Seriously?" the owner said. "I've seen him around the shop several times, he's never stolen anything", he added, before pausing for several seconds... "I think..."

"It doesn't mean anything", I added, "I haven't heard of him getting nicked for a good while, perhaps he's taken the straight and narrow"

The shop owner shrugged and queued up the next video.

"Here you go", he said. "The guy had a funny accent. German or something. He came in to buy a lock, but then he spotted the bike..."

The video didn't have sound, but it was unusually clear for CCTV. Surprisingly so, in fact. A lot of the CCTV footage we see is utterly useless, and some of it looks like it has been scrambled to hell and back, as if the entire file has been run through the blocking-out filter they apply to genitalia in Japanese pornography. Not that I would know what that looks like, of course.


A spot of violence

In the video, you could clearly see Kees getting more and more aggravated. At one point, he simply takes the bike out of the rack, rips off a label that was zip-tied to the seat, and starts pushing the bike toward the doors. The shop owner quickly blocks his way, but Kees runs his bike into the owner, before taking a swing at him with the lock he is holding in his hand.

"Stop there for a moment", I said, and took a closer look at the shop keeper. "Did he hit you with the lock?" I asked him, looking at his face carefully.

"Yeah. He didn't hit me properly, though, that woulda hurt", he replied, as he lifted his hand to his face, rubbing his chin.

"That's pretty swollen there", I said, thoughtfully.

"Yeah, well, I've had worse", the shopkeeper said grimly. I looked at him, waiting for the rest of the story.

"Rugby", he said, and grinned.

I smiled back "Hah, yeah, that makes sense", I said. "Would you excuse me for a moment?"

I went back to the van.

"Kees, do you have any receipts or anything for the bike?", I asked.

"Do you have an iPhone", he replied.

"How do you mean", I said, confused.

"I love my bike", he replied, "And I've kept a blog of all the work I've done on it. The blog has all the receipts on it as well", he said.

"Well, damn..." I said.

"I've ran the bike through the box", Kim said. "It was reported stolen six days ago, by Kees here, and the serial number of the bike matches up with the police report. Also, when he filed his report, he showed the original purchase receipt of the bike, which matched the serial number as well."

"Oh", said Kees, "And if you still doubt it, take the seat stem out of the bike".

I walked around to the bike, unlocked the quick-release clasp, and took the seat off the bike. It looked pretty normal to me.

"What am I looking for here", I asked.

"Look inside", Kees said.

I felt around the bottom of the seat stem with my finger, and found something. I took it out, and took a look. It was a piece of laminated paper that read "Property of Kees Jacobs", with a telephone number.

"It's a normal thing to do in Belgium", Kees said, with a shrug.

"Hang on a sec", I said, and went back to the bike shop.

"I'm starting to believe that the bike belongs to the 'thief'", I told the shop keeper. "He reported it stolen six days ago. When did the lad drop it off to have the tyre fixed?"

The shop keeper picked up the piece of paper that Kees had torn off the bike, and read it.

"Six days ago", he said.

"So it seems as if someone stole the bike whilst the riots were raging, and Tommy dropped it off at your shop to get the tyre fixed soon after", I said.

"Well... Fuck", the proprietor contributed, summarising the culmination of our predicament with imprecateous meticulousness.

"Yeah." I agreed.

"We'll take the bike to the station, as it's stolen property. The owner can come and claim it when they produce their receipt", I said.


A resolution

"I bloody hate bike thieves", he said.

"Yeah, I imagine you must do", I replied. I paused, and looked at the shopkeep for a few moments. His eye had swollen even further, growing before my eyes. The words 'Crikey, that's gonna hurt in the mornin', son' from that annoying Fosters advert were echoing around in my head.

"That leaves only one thing", I said. "The bike owner assaulted you. We have all the evidence we need to prosecute him, I think", I said. "All we need is your video footage, and a statement..."

"Ah", the shopkeeper said, rubbing the side of his head. "You're positive he's not a bike thief?"

"You can never be sure", I said, "But he does seem to have all the receipts to back up his claims. He bought most of the parts off eBay and put the whole bike together himself, by the look of things. He showed me a blog of the work in progress; it looks like it all checks out"

"Can I talk to him?", he asked.

I hesitated. "Not really, to be honest. If we're going to charge him, we need to interview him at the police station."

"Can I go stand by your van and just think out loud for a bit, then?" he asked, with a conspiratory smile on his face.

"Do you have a bathroom?", I asked, by way of reply.

"I do...", he said, pointing with his thumb to door corner of his workshop.

"I'm going to go use the loo, then, if you don't mind. What you do whilst I'm gone is up to you, really." I said, and walked to the loo.

When I came back out, the shopkeep was standing next to the van, laughing with Kim.

Kim came up to me. "The shop keeper is refusing to make a statement about the assault, and says that he may have 'accidentally' deleted the footage of the alleged assault", she said. "What should we do?"

"Well, if there's no evidence of an assault, no allegations of any sort...", I said, and added, "Obviously, Kees can't have stolen his own bike..."

Kim let our suspect out of the caged van, keeping him in handcuffs. "My colleague here will talk to you about getting your bike back", she said, as I was engaged in conversation with the shopkeeper.

"So, just to confirm, I've written here: 'I, Dan Smith, proprietor of the Bike Shack on 73 Main Street, confirm that I do not allege any crimes in connection with my 999 call. CAD 8749 refers'. If that sounds accurate, all you need to do is to sign here, and we'll be out of your hair", I said.

"Yeah, no worries. Turns out Kees and I have friends in common, and to be honest, I'd punch anyone who was in the way of stealing my pride and joy as well", he said, laughing.

"Just for future reference", I said, "I probably wouldn't say that to a police officer if I were you. What he should have done is to dial 999 himself; that would have solved the whole incident without anyone getting any black eyes"

"Yeah, of course. Of course", the shopkeeper said, as he signed and dated my pocketbook. "Keep up the good work, officer!", he said, and walked off.

"Get some ice on that eye", I called after him. He raised a hand and waved a thanks, as he strolled back to his shop. I doubt he was going to bother with the ice.



"Kees", I started talking to the young man in his bright red shirt was leaned against the police van, flirting with Kim. He turned to me.

"Yes, sir?"

"We've got a bit of a problem", I said. "The shopkeeper showed me some CCTV of what happened in the shop. You took a swing at him with a bike lock, and hit him across the face".

Kees nodded gravely.

"That's assault. Given the bruising on his face, I'm guessing you could be charged with ABH - actual bodily harm. That's pretty serious stuff", I said, keeping my eyes locked in his. "Serious enough, in fact, that if you were convicted, you could face several years in prison."

Kees went notably paler as I was talking to him, and started stuttering an apology.

"Please just listen to me. In this case, the correct thing to do would be to call the police, and tell them that you had found your bike. We would have been there in a flash, and we'd have gotten your bike back. See it from his side: He was protecting the property that he thought belonged to a customer. From his perspective - no matter what you said to him - you were trying to steal that bike. Instead of solving this like an adult, because of the choices you made, you ended up hitting a man who hates bike thieves as much as you do, simply because he was doing his job. You're very lucky that he is refusing to make a statement. Things could have been very different; that D-lock is very heavy, and you could have easily broken his jaw, or even killed him if you had been less lucky. Or he might have given a statement and given us the CCTV. And there's no way you could have claimed self defence or anything like that either, because it was your fault that the situation escalated."

As the gravity of the situation was dawning on Kees, he got paler and paler. I opened the door of the police van and asked if he would like to sit down on the step. He accepted.

"I'm going to do a 'street bail', which means I'm going to let you go, but you'll need to show up at the police station so we can give you a formal warning". I explained to him what would happen to him if he missed his appointment, and that he would have to come to the police station to pick up his bike anyway. "Come to the station the day after tomorrow at 3pm. We'll sort out your caution. That's going to go on your police record, by the way, but it's not a criminal conviction. I'll explain all of that to you when you come to the station", I said. "Bring the receipts for your bike as well, and we'll make sure you get your bike back".

"Do you have any questions", I finished.

He shook his pale face slowly.

"Right, let's get these cuffs off you, then", I said, and freed him, before passing Kim's cuffs back to her.

"Off you go, and see you the day after tomorrow", I said. Kees nodded, but seemed to be in a complete daze.

"First time you've talked to the police?", Kim asked him. He nodded.

"Well, second, actually", he said. "the first time was last week, when I reported my bike stolen"

"Don't worry too much about it", she said. "Assault is serious, but I'm guessing you've learned your lesson, right?"

Kees nodded vigorously.

"You'll get a warning out of it, but it could be much, much worse. Just remember for the next time, that violence probably isn't going to solve anything, all right?"

Kees nodded again. "Thank you" he said to Kim, before turning to me. "Thank you", he repeated.

"No worries. See you the day after tomorrow", I said. "And stay out of trouble, all right?"

"Yes, sir!" he said. To my confusion, he did a military-style salute to both of us, before he walked off, dialling a number on his phone.



Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.

If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.

Image credit: Police image from Shutterstock.