We need more common sense about bike thieves

The recent BBC documentary ‘Inside Britain’s Moped Gangs’ followed a group of motorcycle thieves and caused controversy among bikers. But many people may have missed the point of the programme.

Biker & Bike started after I watched a video of a gang of young men on scooters stealing a motorcycle from a parking bay, in broad daylight, with nobody stepping in the stop the theft.

Like virtually every biker who has seen the footage, I screamed at the YouTube video, wondering why nobody had stepped in to stop the theft. Why was someone filming it, instead of putting down their phone and dealing with these people? I cannot tell you how angry the whole thing made me feel.

Since then I’ve seen too many other videos; watched in my neighbourhood as the same ‘moped gangs’ run around seemingly unchallenged; I’ve listened in despair as police contacts have explained how the situation cannot change without significant changes to their resourcing and the Criminal Justice System. Despair because I know that it is currently not going to happen.


I have researched the subject deeply and written about it in great depth. I have probably written more on police pursuit policy and its effect on bike crime; on motorcycle protection; on bike-jacking, than anyone other than professionals like Ken German. I’m constantly looking for ways to change the situation: Biker & Bike will be launching a new campaign soon aiming to get bike owners better protected from theft. I am certainly not an expert, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about the problem.

I want the Government and local authorities to do more. I want bike manufacturers to do more. I want everyone to do more and anyone that takes a sensible, considered approach to bike crime gets my attention.

Which is why I applaud the BBC for their documentary ‘Inside Britain’s Moped Gangs’.

If you haven’t seen it, BBC journalist Livvy Haydock follows a group of London motorcycle thieves who explain their motivations, methods and the backgrounds that have driven them to this lifestyle.


Why the BBC were right to make this film

As I watched Inside Britain’s Moped Gangs I became increasingly angrier. I was witnessing, so I thought, another media organisation exploiting our situation to get more clicks/views.

Then, along came two scenes that changed my view completely and I realised exactly what the BBC were doing. BTW, I’ll be open – I don’t buy into BBC leftie-rightie conspiracy theories. I know the BBC has a mandate to deliver balanced journalism, their Charter means they have a legal requirement to do so.

The first scene that changed my mind was when the bike thieves were asked, standing next to a bay of parked bikes, which motorcycles they would steal. Their explanations were a direct lesson to owners on exactly what you need to do to make the thieves move onto the next bike and leave yours alone. Showing this scene was educational for bike owners.

Unlike many comments I’ve read about the documentary, I don’t think the producers should be reported to the police for ‘colluding’ with bike thieves or glamorising the criminal lifestyle (IMHO, they didn’t).

If you want to scream, ‘they shouldn’t be stealing in the first place,’ I completely agree. But this is post-recession, can’t afford the rent, food-banking crisis 2018 Britain, where drugs and ‘man dem’ social-media bragging fuel a sub-culture of easy cash desire. Unless you want to change that, this is how it is now. And your stolen bike pays for it.

Inside Britain's Moped Gangs
© Met Police | A scene from ‘Inside Britain’s Moped Gangs’

The uncomfortable truth about the British Criminal Justice System

The prison population has increased 82% in the last 30 years (and nothing to do with immigration by the way – 75% of the people banged up are classified as White British). Which is why thieves under 24 have very little chance of being put away for a life-changing stretch. There’s no more room for them.

This is the uncomfortable truth. The prison system in the UK has been overcrowded every year since 1994. No matter how much I want to see people punished for their crimes – and believe me, despite my conclusion here, I’m an ‘an-eye-for-an-eye’ person – it is simply NOT going to happen.

Reflect on this: In Holland, they are closing prisons. There are not enough Dutch criminals to fill them.

The Dutch system still puts people away, but with an emphasis on rehabilitation and putting these people back on track, not punishment.

Yes, Holland has a criminal underclass, just like ours, and people commit bike crimes there. But importantly, when they are caught and put through the Dutch criminal justice system, the rates of reoffending are dramatically lower than the UK’s. Many, if not most of the people in British prisons are re-offenders. Reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the UK economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually. So, clearly, something is not working.


You can read more about the Dutch approach here, but let’s get back to the BBC doc. The second scene that showed the BBC producers weren’t just scamming for ratings was when they picked up on one thief’s ability at racing games on the PlayStation.

If you haven’t yet seen the documentary, here’s a spoiler. They took him to an expensive driving simulator that tests a driver’s ability for a career in Formula 1 and other high-end championships. It turns out he was pretty decent. Better in fact than most of the young people that had been through the test. Wearing a ridiculous mask and gloves throughout the instruction and tests, he beat the times of a young driver who is already in a Formula 1 progression programme.

It became clear that if he applied himself and if he went straight (it was made clear to him he would get nowhere unless he immediately gave up his life of crime – the racing industry wouldn’t tolerate it), then he had a genuine shot at being a racing driver. He immediately decided that’s what he would do. Result: one less bike thief.

That’s the stuff only an idiot in the movies could dream up, right? Taking a young, disadvantaged no-hoper who felt he had no other options but a life of crime, and pointing him towards a million-dollar career?

So fucking what, you might be thinking. He’s still a criminal. Bang him up.


What the documentary is actually saying

Here’s where I think the BBC gets its real message across, and it might not be aiming at you, the victim biker.

To any thieves and gang members watching the programme, the message was stark: you can continue to have a low-quality life based on crime, or you can make something of your abilities.

After showing us ‘Mr X’s’ reaction to his racing times and his desire to go straight and make the most of his ability, the film cut to the progress the rest of the gang were making. They are all still bogged down in a low-rent lifestyle of crime.

It was saying, very directly, ‘look at how piss-poor, and low-level you are compared to ‘Mr X’.

And yet, they all have an ability of some kind. Yes, it’s used misguidingly. However, if someone has the balls to carry out an armed raid on jewellers, presumably they could walk into a conflict area, only this time wearing an army uniform. If they are tasty using angle-grinders and other equipment, perhaps their time is better spent customising cars and making a profit from it. And feeling good about themselves and their achievements into the bargain.

Result: The rest of them will at least be reflecting on the contrast in fortunes. Some might even decide to act on it.


The final, uncomfortable truth

Until motorcycles are 100% unstealable, thieves will continue to steal them. Unless we change the system we are currently working to.

Because there is no room, the Criminal Justice System is set up to keep people OUT of prison, so there is no deterrent not to commit a crime. Because the police are so severely under-resourced, there is little likelihood of catching them anyway. When there is an opportunity, many police officers have said there is little point putting their careers at risk getting involved in a dangerous pursuit if the end result is just a slap on the wrists for the offender. It’s a vicious circle. The system is completely bust.

I am not saying we need to mollycoddle the criminal underclass. I am definitely not saying we should give up trying to use the Criminal Justice System to reduce crime and reoffending. I am saying we need to look at the Dutch system and possibly others and see what they are doing right when the UK is getting it so wrong.

I’m also saying I agree with the BBC producer’s real point: If you try harder to point someone in the right direction, they can be useful to society, not a burden on it.

In my view, the current solutions to motorcycle-related crime aren’t going to have any meaningful impact. They are only a stop gap to the real causes underlying why people are committing the crimes in the first place.

With odds so significantly stacked against the people at least trying to do something about it, there is not going to be a solution anytime soon. It really is time for new thinking.


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The Author

Ian Malone

Ian Malone

Ian is the Editor and a co-founder of Biker & Bike.

He is obsessed about bikes to the point that he often starts conversations with new people by saying, "Please don't get me onto the subject of bikes. We'll be here all day."

Inevitably, the next question asked is nearly always, "What bike have you got, then?"

He owns four bikes right now:

'78 Kawasaki Z650
'97 Triumph Daytona 955i
'02 Suzuki SV650s
'09 Yamaha R1

At any one time, only two of these bikes are ever working, as you can read about on our blog.