Like most teenagers, Sophie Thompson was perfectly happy to be home alone. But on a recent day off from school to attend a medical appointment, that changed for ever.
It was shortly after midday earlier this month when the 14-year-old heard someone coming up the stairs of the family’s semi-detached house in Annitsford, a village in North Tyneside. It was two men.
‘One of them turned and looked at me straight in the eyes,’ she recalled, her voice full of emotion. ‘He shouted: ‘Stay where you are!’ ‘
Figures show 58 per cent of burglaries occurred when homes were occupied. There has been a 53 per cent rise of these kind of break-ins from five years ago
Shocked and dazed, Sophie immediately slammed her bedroom door shut, before leaning against it to try to prevent anyone from entering. Then, trembling, she called her mother and the police.
Of course, by the time officers arrived the burglars had long gone. The policemen reassured the schoolgirl they would do everything they could to catch the intruders, who had broken in through the conservatory.
Whether that actually happens, only time will tell. But her experience — brief as it was — has already had a profound impact. ‘I just don’t want to be by myself and can’t sleep very well,’ said Sophie. ‘I have been having bad dreams and am scared they might come back.
‘It’s just the thought of what they might have done. It just keeps playing in mind . . . the way he looked into my eyes.’
Her mother Laura, meanwhile, who runs a car sales company, says: ‘I can’t even go into a shop and leave her in the car. At night she’s been coming into my bed. I’m not surprised — I would be the same. If the house had been empty and they’d come in and stolen a couple of TVs it wouldn’t have mattered. It’s the fact that she was there when someone broke in that’s so scary.’
What makes the break-in so astonishing is the sheer audacity of it. Not only did it happen in broad daylight, but there are four CCTV cameras (they weren’t working at the time because the front of the house was being decorated, but the burglars didn’t know that).
Yet break-ins like these are becoming more common. The latest figures show that 58 per cent of burglaries occurred when the property was occupied — up from 53 per cent five years ago. At the same time, only one in ten crimes committed in England and Wales ends with anyone being charged.
With budgets under pressure many forces no longer routinely investigate crimes such as burglaries, thefts and minor assaults. Which, it is claimed, sends out a message to criminals that they can go about their illicit business with little fear of being brought to book.
Earlier this month pensioner Maureen Whale, 77, collapsed as she was on the phone reporting a gang of burglars who were ransacking her home in Barnet, North London, while she was inside. She died the following day.
And on Sunday, an elderly wheelchair user died days after being assaulted during a burglary at his home. The 69-year-old man suffered injuries to his face and body following the break-in at his flat in Birmingham on December 10.
In some ways Sophie and her mother are among the ‘lucky’ ones. Northumbria Police found a screwdriver left by the burglars. It has been sent away for DNA analysis while a number of neighbours have also come forward with descriptions, which detectives are probing.
But the lasting psychological effect of such an incident cannot be underestimated. Consider the spine-chilling words of a woman whose home in Wolverhampton was broken into in the early hours last year.
She was awoken by the sound of breaking glass and stayed hidden as the thief shone a torch into the downstairs room where she and her four-year-old son were asleep. Her daughter, ten, was asleep upstairs.
‘Every second was fear, panic and shock — I have struggled with flashbacks of the night ever since,’ said the 29-year-old in a witness impact statement delivered to a court last month, ahead of the intruder being sentenced to three years in jail.
‘When he entered I hid under the covers with my son trying to call the police and praying that I could get help. I heard him go upstairs and into my daughter’s room — this is something that still makes my blood run cold.
‘My instincts were to chase him upstairs, but I couldn’t as I didn’t know at this stage if the police were on their way. I couldn’t leave my son.’
And she added: ‘Mentally we have been to hell and back.
‘How do you tell a child they are safe to go to sleep when they know this might not be true?’
While in this instance the burglar was traced thanks to DNA left at the scene on a baseball cap, elsewhere victims of crime say police are all too often reluctant to carry out anything but the most superficial enquiries.
It was reported last month that Britain’s biggest police force is dismissing about a third of all reported crimes after only one telephone call with the victim.
Burglaries, low-level assaults, criminal damage, theft and affray can all be dismissed without being investigated under a policy introduced by the Met Police last year.
The danger of this approach, say experts, is that it both sends out the wrong message to criminals and leaves victims feeling abandoned.
Laura Thompson whose daughter Sophie, 14, disturbed two burglars who had broken into her home in Annitsford, Northumberland
Barbara Oakley, operations manager at Victim Support, says: ‘You want someone to come along and say: ‘This is what you’ll do next, this is what we will do next.’
‘You don’t just want to make a phone call and then be left to tidy up the mess, and with all the fear. I think an officer turning up, taking you seriously, goes a long way with the public. Burglary is seen as one of the most personal crimes, because it is your information or your personal space that has been invaded.’
Indeed, according to a survey by alarm company Verisure 17 per cent of burglary victims are so badly affected by the experience they move home.
Among them is chef Anthony Mercer, who was living with his sister near Rochdale when his house was broken into last summer. As the pair slept upstairs, a burglar or burglars broke in through a window.
The following morning they woke up and came downstairs to discover the television, camera equipment, an Xbox and computer hard-drives worth thousands of pounds had been taken. Also missing was 36-year-old Mr Mercer’s car, a Vauxhall Corsa, into which the gang had loaded up the stolen goods.
The following day, police stopped the car, arresting the driver who was also found to be in possession of an imitation Samurai sword. Despite being caught red-handed, Mr Mercer was informed by police that the youth was subsequently dealt with by a youth rehabilitation order.
‘If he had a weapon then you can only assume he had it when he broke into the house,’ said Mr Mercer. ‘It’s terrifying. At the end of the day your home is your safe-haven. You presume that you are safe. Not feeling safe in your own house is an horrific thing.
‘Now if there is any kind of noise, I’m awake, bolt upright in bed, looking out the windows to see what’s going on. You worry — is it happening again? I’ve suffered from sleeplessness, fearfulness, general uneasiness.’ Indeed, Mr Mercer has since moved to a ‘quieter’ area.
As an emergency services worker Lucy Mackcracken knows the financial pressures the police are under. But when her house was burgled at the end of June as she slept upstairs with her husband James and five-year-old daughter Emilia, she expected the family would at least get a visit from police.
Intruders had forced open the lock of a downstairs door at the detached property in Birmingham, entering the kitchen and taking the keys for her brand-new A Class Mercedes.
The family slept through the raid, only discovering the car had gone the following morning
Having dialled 101 to report the crime, they received a visit from a forensics officer. They were then told that they would also have a visit from police who would investigate the crime. But no one came that day — or any other.
‘In the end they said they were so busy they couldn’t get to us,’ said Mrs Mackcracken, who works in human resources for the ambulance service and was heavily pregnant at the time of the burglary.
‘They told us they were going to knock on neighbours’ doors but we didn’t see them do that and none of our neighbours said they have done that. I was really disappointed and felt very vulnerable.
‘For my daughter to have seen that something bad happened and the police haven’t come to help us, it’s left a bit of a mark in her mind.’
Police forces across the country have experienced big cuts in government funding that have led to a fall of more than 20,000 officers over the past eight years.
And yet there are concerns that priorities have become distorted — with ‘core policing’ duties such as investigating burglaries and violent crimes being ignored in the drive to tackle hate crime. An offence becomes classified as a hate crime when the victim considers it to have been driven by hostility against their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity.
Since 2013 the number of hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales has more than doubled to 94,000 last year. Recently, a raft of senior police officers have voiced their concerns. Sara Thornton, who chairs the National Police Chiefs Council, said forces lack the manpower to pursue or even record every issue raised. ‘I want us to solve more burglaries and bear down on violence before we make more records of incidents that are not crimes,’ she said.
Maureen Whale collapsed as burglars were ransacking her home in London
She was backed by Cressida Dick, commissioner of the MetPolice, who backed calls to return to ‘traditional values’ and priorities.
Consider, by way of example, a couple of cases dealt with recently by Thames Valley Police.
This is a force which closes investigations without identifying a suspect in seven out of ten household burglaries and reported vehicle thefts. And yet it recently emerged it had spent three years and thousands of pounds on a case involving a 70-year-old woman accused of beeping her horn at a black woman during a disagreement at a petrol station.
Despite part-time charity worker Jane Savidge denying she had even known who was at the wheel of the vehicle, she was accused of racial abuse, something she vehemently denies. Yet Thames Valley Police have still recorded what had happened as a racially motivated ‘hate crime’.
Outraged that her version of events has been ignored, and fearing the slur of being branded racist would affect her charitable work, she has been fighting the force for three years to get them to change their records — to no avail.
The force’s diligence in that matter does not play well with 57-year-old David Holley, who lives near Bicester in Oxfordshire. In January his £12,000 caravan was stolen from in front of his house in the early hours. Although the criminals didn’t enter his property, knowing they were just outside his front door still frightens David.
‘I called the police immediately, and told them the thieves had left behind broken locks that could be of interest forensically and that there was CCTV footage of the them coming and going in a car.’
But it was almost a week before the first officer visited the scene, and almost three weeks before they checked CCTV and carried out house-to-house enquiries. He says he was told that the delay did not matter because ‘the number plates would almost certainly be false’.
Unsurprisingly, no arrests were made, prompting Mr Holley to complain about the force’s ‘unwillingness to investigate’.
Mr Holley, who works for a private bank, says: ‘There was no attempt to do anything to recover the property I’d had stolen. I feel very, very badly let down.’ But Thames Valley Police rejected his complaint, and a subsequent appeal.
‘This does not come down to an unwillingness to investigate, it comes down to the number of resources we as a service have to deploy,’ an officer wrote to Mr Holley. ‘We can’t investigate every theft and difficult choices have to be made.’
Talking of the two cases, a spokesman added: ‘The way hate incidents are investigated, and the way burglaries are investigated, are clearly very different, but as with all offences, Thames Valley Police has a duty to investigate. The investigation of hate-related crimes and incidents does not have any impact on the investigation of burglaries or any other crimes.’
Whether such assurances will deter those intent on spoiling someone else’s Christmas by burgling homes and stealing possessions — whether they’re in the property or not — is another matter.