Throwback Thursday: Shanghai’s pickpocket task force

By That's Shanghai, July 23, 2015

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Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.

By Leslie Jones & Raemin Zhang, Photos by Nicky Almasy

At 6am they pile into a beige van. All is quiet as they pull out of the station, except for the rookie who pulls his handcuffs out of his track pants and flicks the ratchet in circles – a metallic zipping noise to greet the day’s work ahead.

There are six on the plainclothes’ team today. Officially, they’re known as Shanghai Urban Railway and Bus Police, a citywide force that patrols public transit for light fingers.

Aside from Liu Tongshan, the youngest, they’re all in their forties and fifties. Two are grandfathers. Chen Zhen is the only woman. Petite and fit, she looks much younger than her 50 years. None of them have crew cuts; a couple look due for a trim. They don’t carry weapons, instead relying on kung fu training. They don’t look like cops, but one gives us a knowing smile.

“The thieves can tell.”

The first stop is a little neighborhood in Qibao. They’re following up on a tip that a known pickpocket moved into the area. The officers linger a small distance from the dingy two-story complex in question, munching on fried pancakes and chatting quietly. At 7am everyone gets back into the van: a thief who hasn’t left by that hour is a thief who isn’t planning on working morning rush, they say.

Most thieves they catch are career purloiners. In the city center they’re usually lone wolfs. Gangs are more common in the suburbs. During May Holiday they arrested a gang of five (two guys to steal, two lookouts and one to hold the bag). They’d snatched six cell phones, an e-reader, an iPhone and a camera all within two hours.

“Our schedule is the thief’s schedule,” says team leader Liu Jiayong. They only get two days off during Spring Festival and National Days since thieves come out in force during peak travel times. There are lots of early mornings and late nights. Plus it’s like they’re never totally off duty. When Chen Zhen’s son was an infant, she spotted a thief while out on a family stroll. She put down her baby to chase him down.

“Anyone of us would have done that,” she says.

They all put in lots of unpaid overtime. It’s part of Chinese police culture; public service takes priority over all. One study reported that the average cop here works 11 to 15 hours a day.

They’re fiercely devoted to one another, like family, they say. On more than one occasion they’ve pulled each other through tight spots. Zhang Hongyu has a thick scar on the inside of his forearm shaped like a ‘W’ where a thief cut through to tendon.

Things have improved over the years. Chen recalls a decade ago when it didn’t matter what time of day, if she got on Line 71 – a bus route that runs from Huangpu to Jing’an – she was practically guaranteed to find a thief. Now sometimes they’ll go an entire week without a substantial arrest.

The most they’ve ever found on a thief at one time was RMB20,000 (a purse slitter who’d been knifing bags for cash). Another time they nabbed a thief and took his notebook, inside he’d sketched a graph of his month-to-month earnings and also penned a little note of self encouragement, ‘If I work hard I’ll make RMB180,000 this year.’

“I know of a pickpocket who purchased an apartment there,” one says as the van passes a high-rise compound with tree-lined driveways.

But the thief who buys a house with his trappings is rare. Most people they run into come from impoverished provinces – Anhui, Gansu, Guangxi. Necklace snatchers tend to come from Jiangxi. Most thieves are male, but recently a group of pregnant women from Guizhou have been working Zhangjiang High Technology Park – taking advantage of their pregnancy since the Chinese criminal justice system deals with mothers-to-be leniently.

Chen says recently she watched an old man extract a wallet from a woman’s bag. There was more than RMB400 inside, but he only took RMB70 and slipped the wallet back. When she approached him he told her he was just trying to get by, relying on the only skill he has – no one wants to hire an old man. They let him go after retrieving the cash.

They rely heavily on instinct though there are telltale signs – a big empty bag for one. Thieves have quick reflexes and above-average intelligence, they say. And they’re like cats – very sensitive to their surroundings.

Shanghai's undercover pickpocket police

They drive around looking for a crowded bus stop, then park the van out of the way (it’s unmarked, but some thieves will recognize it). Two officers go out and linger in the crowd. If they see someone suspicious, they’ll board the bus after him and the van will follow. It’s a monotonous routine until something happens.

“Xiaotou lai le!” Chen yells ("The thief’s here!"). She hops out of the van.

Their mark is a slender, frail-looking man, dressed in all black and carrying an empty white bag. They’ve caught him before. He is ‘da hui lun’ – police lingo for a guy that gets on the bus, goes a couple of stops, then gets off and goes back the other way – making little circles trolling for goods.

When he boards, two officers follow. They don’t stand very close or look at him directly. He doesn’t look like someone preying on commuters. He doesn’t appear to be casing the crowd. If anything, he just looks tired. When he changes buses, the officers switch out with two from the van – if the thief notices the same people on buses going in different directions, he’ll know cops are on to him.

It only takes a couple changes before Chen catches him pilfering a woman’s subway pass. One officer stays on the bus to inform the victim, while Chen follows the thief off the bus.

When she approaches him his face contorts aggrievedly. He looks overwrought, as if something supremely unfair has happened. He denies that he took anything, telling Chen to look in his empty bag, but she tells him she saw him take the Metro card.

“Just give it back,” she says. He pulls it out of his jacket and hands it over.

Since he’s been arrested previously, they know he’s HIV positive. Like pregnant women, non-violent criminals infected with HIV are often dealt with leniently. The officers say this is for two reasons – one is the fear of spread of infection among the prison population and the other is out of consideration for the man’s shortened life expectancy.

After he returns the card, Chen lets him go. It only has RMB70 on it anyways, hardly enough to book him for very long. He’s the catch of the day; they stakeout several more stops, but nothing pans out. When asked if the thief they caught will be back to work tomorrow, everyone in the van nods yes. But then, so will they.

This article first appeared in the July 2011 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.

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