Police ramp up towpath patrols amidst latest spike in armed robberies

Pathway by Hackney Marshes Pic: Simon Norman

Police have ramped up towpath patrols in the Hackney Marshes area following the latest spate of armed robberies.

Acting Police Sergeant Vincent Boughton, from Hackney Police Robbery Task Force, told Eastlondonlines: “I have increased our Robbery Task Force patrols [in E5], which includes marked police motorbikes as well as unmarked police cars and bicycles.”  

“I have also asked the National Police Air Service, the police helicopter, to conduct general patrols.” 

These measures were prompted by a string of six armed robberies on Wednesday along the canal towpath and a footpath in Hackney Marshes; an area on the western bank of the River Lea.  

Police are still receiving reports of similar robberies, meaning patrols will persist until further notice.

Two teenagers have been charged with conspiracy to commit robbery and threatening a person with a blade following the six robberies on Wednesday.

Armed with knives, they took advantage of the thick fog and pounced on cyclist commuters. One of the victims was an off-duty police officer.  

Police units flooded the surrounding areas, before arresting the two teenagers on Lea Bridge Road on Thursday night.  

In a statement by Hackney Police, one of the men was caught hiding with a knife and a mask, and despite the deployment of a helicopter and police vehicles, the search for the men lasted hours.   

Area where the six robberies took place Pic: Google maps

Canal towpaths in the E5 area are a hotbed for armed robberies, due to being dimly lit, isolated and poorly covered by CCTV. They are also filled with pinch points and escape routes that suspects can use to their advantage.  

Earlier this year, muggings at knife point by masked men were being reported several times a week. Hotspot areas included Homerton Road bridge and Springfield Park in Hackney, and Markfield Park in Tower Hamlets.  

Attacks have included a woman having her nose broken by two men in balaclavas under Homerton Road bridge, and a man having his phone, wallet and bike stolen before being forced to draw cash from an ATM at knife point. 

Despite the attacks, Boughton said that he wouldn’t recommend avoiding the Towpaths completely, but that people should take a common sense approach when it comes to dark and isolated areas, and use roads or well-lit cycle paths instead.  

He added: “Anyone can become a victim of a robbery or assault and there is absolutely no blame attached to them.”  

Helen Brice, 53, who founded Canal Watch in October 2017, a community neighborhood watch for boaters, pedestrians and cyclists along towpaths in London, told Eastlondonlines that the issue is exacerbated by a lack of lighting and CCTV.

Brice added that starting a discussion about installing lighting was a case of being ‘pushed from pillar to post’ between Hackney Council and the Canal and River Trust, as it was unclear who would be responsible for installing and maintaining it.

Hackney Council told Eastlondonlines that the Canal and River Trust are responsible for towpath lighting, but when asked whether further lighting is required in hotspot areas, the Trust said this was for the police to decide.

To deal with the lack of light, boaters have had to make do with installing their own lighting onto the sides of their boats.

Brice said that based on anecdotal evidence from 10 years of boating, the number of armed robberies in the E5 area has not increased, yet the number of arrests has risen due to persistent activism from boaters’ to get a stronger response from police.

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