Met uses undercover ‘victim’ officers to clamp down on luxury watch thefts
Two operations carried out in late 2022 and 2023 across South Kensington, Chelsea, Soho and Mayfair saw officers deployed as potential targets wearing expensive watch brands. Opportunistic criminals who then tried to steal the watches in the street were apprehended by other undercover officers nearby, with both operations leading more than 20 convictions so far. The robbers targeted luxury Swiss brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe, which retain a high value in second-hand markets.
They tried to lure the undercover officers into a false sense of security outside bars and other venues by offering drugs or directions to sex workers. It comes after new data found 29,000 watches had been reported stolen to the Met in the last five years, with one in five of those thefts involving violence. During a media briefing on Tuesday, Met Commander for Intelligence Ben Russell said the operations were about “preventing crime in certain locations in a precise way”, while he praised the “immense professionalism and dedication” of the officers involved.
Speaking after the briefing, he said: “We think this is organised crime, but it’s pretty opportunistic. “There are groups of young men, mainly in their 20s and 30s, hanging around outside bars and clubs spotting people, and they know what they’re looking for.
Mayfair has been pinpointed by the Met as a designer watch theft hotspot, along with South Kensington, Chelsea and Soho (Aaron Chown/PA)
“They’re not stealing people’s fakes – they are targeting original, genuine, expensive watches. They’re getting right up in people’s faces, they’re man-handling victims, they’re spending quite a bit of time talking to victims to make sure they know what they’re stealing.”
Between April and September 2022, around 300 luxury watch robberies were reported stolen across Westminster, Kensington, Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham with a total value of roughly GBP4 million, Commander Russell said. The Met then pinpointed three hotspots – South Kensington, Chelsea, Soho and Mayfair – as the areas where the robberies most frequently occurred. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, specifically between 11pm and 4am, were identified as the most frequent times that the thefts would occur.
Following the first operation from October to December 2022 there was a reduction in reported watch thefts of 28% in the three-month period. The second operation, carried out from March to October last year, saw a further decrease in robbery cases in the three areas of 16%. Overall, the number of watch robberies in the boroughs in the summer of 2023 was half that of the previous year.
Emmanuel Odunlami, 32, was killed for his fake designer watch in May 2022 (City of London Police/PA)
A total of 27 men were arrested and successfully charged in the operations, with 21 being convicted and 14 sentenced to 26 years in jail. Mr Russell said he would not tell people not to wear watches but advised those intent on doing so to be aware of their surroundings, and to get insurance and take a photograph of their possession. He added: “We’re really keen to continue using precision and data and our approach, we’ll use a range of tactics to do that… that might be involving undercover officers, that might be high visibility patrols, that might be using our intelligence to stop people before they even go out.”
Data obtained under a Freedom of Information request by database the Watch Register found there were 28,999 watches reported stolen to the Met since 2019, with 5,768 (20%) of these reports involving violence. There were 49,854 total watches reported stolen across the 21 UK police forces that responded to the request over the same period. A gang of four robbers are due to be sentenced to years in jail at the Old Bailey next month after Emmanuel Odunlami, 32, was killed for his fake designer watch in May 2022.
The music manager was stabbed to death in the City of London after he was seen wearing a Patek Philippe Nautilus watch which, if real, was worth between GBP90,000 and GBP300,000.