Boaters to launch community patrols of River Lea towpath after spike in violent robberies

A file image of the River Lea, near the towpath where robberies are on the increase. Picture: Dan At

A file image of the River Lea, near the towpath where robberies are on the increase. Picture: Dan Atrill/Flickr/Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0 - Credit: Archant

Boaters on the River Lea are planning community patrols of the towpath after a spate of terrifying knifepoint robberies over the last few months.

A narrow boat moves along the River Lea. Picture: Gareth Fuller

A narrow boat moves along the River Lea. Picture: Gareth Fuller - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Groups of masked youngsters armed with huge knives have been mugging people for their phones and bank cards several times a week, according to reports.

The hotspots are said to be the Homerton Road bridge, the area near Springfield Park and around Markfield Park further along in Tottenham.

One man told the Gazette two men tried to break into his boat on April 10 but he managed to scare them off after grabbing an axe he uses for chopping wood.

“I thought it was my friend,” he said. “But when I saw they were trying to rip the door open forcefully I just panicked. The burner was right by the door so I just grabbed the axe and kicked it open. They jumped off the boat really quickly and legged it.

“There have been two guys wearing balaclavas mugging people at knifepoint. I know three people who have been robbed. Literally a few days before my attempted break-in a woman was robbed just under the bridge [Homerton Road] next to where I was moored. She had her nose broken.

“I think there’s a few crews doing it but the two with balaclavas are carrying around a big kitchen knife. They’re brazen enough.”

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Three days later another man was mugged while cycling home.

A friend said: “Three young men in masks held him by knifepoint, stole his bike, phone, wallet and held him there while two went to an ATM to draw cash. They held a knife to him until he gave his PIN.”

Hackney Council, the Canal and River Trust (CRT) and local police are all aware of the spike in crime and meet regularly with the boaters. Cops and the town hall recently installed CCTV cameras at key locations on the towpath in an effort to catch criminals.

But the cash-strapped force doesn’t have resources to patrol the towpath as regularly as is needed, so boaters are now taking it on themselves.

Helen Brice formed the group Canal Watch London and tried to launch volunteer patrols last year but found not enough people could commit. Recent incidents have led to more people coming forward, however, and they are set to start again. The patrols will be non-confrontational – groups will use torches and whistles to make people aware the towpath is being watched and pass on any reports to police.

“The main purpose is to create a presence that deters crime, and encourages the community to take control of their space,” Helen said.

“We don’t want to be scaremongering but we don’t know what to do. We also don’t want to be vigilantes. But more boaters are being alerted to this and being affected.”

Helen said another idea the group is toying with is to patrol from the water in canoes or dinghies, though discussions about that are at an early stage.

A spreadsheet with information about crimes on the river was created a year ago, with the details handed over to police. In that time 189 incidents had been logged, mostly burglaries.

Volunteer-led neighbourhood watch group Shomrim, which also patrols the towpath, has shared its methods with the boaters.

Shomrim chair, Rabbi Herschel Gluck, told the Gazette as well as supporting the boaters his volunteers would themselves be increasing patrols on the towpath in the wake of the robberies.

On their work with the boaters, he added: “We have worked very closely with the group and told them what to do. We gave them our model and have also put them in touch with the local police. We’ve had many hours of talks trying to help them. People think they can get away with committing crimes on the towpath because it is forlorn and isolated. It’s a free-for-all.”

The town hall’s crime chief Cllr Caroline Selman said she met the CRT this week to discuss what could be done.

She said: “We are working closely with the police and CRT to tackle crime along the towpath, listening to the concerns raised by residents and towpath users.

“Local police safer neighbourhood teams have been proactively working to tackle this issue, and we recently worked with them to install CCTV cameras.

“We know residents are concerned and therefore will be arranging a joint meeting between us, CRT and the police to provide an update.”