In October 2017, 22-year-old Naren Baratwaj was walking near Hindustan College in Kelambakkam at around 8 pm when his phone was snatched by a couple of men on a bike. But imagine, for a second, a situation where police are present at the site of snatching even before the thugs arrive and are in fact poised and prepared to catch them in the act. No, this scene is not part of a far-fetched movie plot, but could well be possible according to recent criminology research. Researchers, including those who have been studying crime in Chennai and the incidence of snatching cases, say that offenders can in fact be apprehended on the spot if the location of the next crime can be predicted — not through fortune-telling or mind-reading, but by looking at patterns.
In May 2021, a research article titled ‘Location Choice of Snatching Offenders in Chennai City‘ was published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology after researching these crime patterns in Chennai. K Kuralarasan, an Assistant Professor of Criminology at Chennai’s D.R.B.C.C.C. Hindu College, and Wim Bernasco, a professor of Spatial Economics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, are the authors of the study.
According to the 2020 National Crime Records Bureau report, Chennai ranks fifth among Indian cities with the most theft cases. The researchers studied all snatching cases reported between August 2010 and July 2017 from the State Crime Records Bureau: there were a total of 1,573 solved snatching cases in the eight years in the city of 6.6 million. They found that the detection rate of snatching offences in Chennai was about 35%.
However, the findings of the study outline certain patterns that could help in investigating snatching, and prevent the crime by identifying vulnerable or probable locations of snatching, say the researchers. The key observations include:
1. Offenders tend to snatch in locations near their own areas of residence.
2. If not caught by the police, offenders tend to come back to the same area for snatching.
3. In terms of location patterns, most snatching incidents happen near retail stores, textiles, personal care businesses, educational institutions. Marriage halls and temples are not commonly chosen by snatchers for the crime.
4. Most of the offenders fall under the age group of 19 to 25 years, and over 99% of the offenders are male.
Why is it so difficult to nab snatching offenders?
“Snatching incidents occur in the open, unlike burglaries. Burglaries involve a person breaking into a property and trespassing, hence the evidence is high. But, snatching does not leave much physical evidence, and it is tough to solve these cases; these crimes typically involve two offenders. One person would be riding a bike, and the other person would be snatching the belongings of the victim,” says Kuralarasan.
While solving burglaries, physical evidence like fingerprints can be used as clues. But snatching hardly leaves any clues, except for tyre marks in rare cases when bikes are used for the crime on muddy roads. “With tyre marks alone, we cannot do much,” says Muralidharan*, a retired police officer.
Another clue used by the police is the colour of the shirt of the offender. “But most offenders have a spare shirt with them, and they change soon after the crime, before we even start our search. Then they escape,” shares Muralidharan.
CCTV cameras installed on the roads are unlikely to give very clear images of the number plate of the bikes used for snatching. High clarity CCTV cameras tend to have low storage capacities, where the footage would be automatically erased within a week. As a result, streets more often have lower-end CCTV cameras to sidestep the problem of limited storage. “But then, with these types of cameras, the police would not be able to see the face of the offender or the number plates [clearly],” explains Kuralarasan.
Muralidharan however maintains that it is only because of CCTV cameras that the detection of snatching has been made possible in some cases at least.
Even when number plates are visible, there are challenges. There have been multiple cases where the snatching was committed on stolen bikes, making it harder to catch the offender. “There are a lot of dead ends while trying to solve snatching cases, but detection is not impossible,” says the police officer.
Besides, in countries with huge populations like India, the number of police per lakh of population is quite low. The United Nations recommends 222 police per lakh of people whereas in India, there are only 195.39 police per lakh of people, as per the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2020. In Tamil Nadu, there are only 148.54 police per lakh of people. “Thus, the workload of police is high. They [the police] cannot focus on each and every crime individually. The amount of attention they can provide for individual cases is very less,” says Kuralarasan.
Naren went to the Kelambakkam police station to report the crime an hour after his phone was snatched. “The police told me that it was no use investigating then. By that time, they would have disassembled the phone and sold its parts. But I still registered a complaint as a formality,” narrates Naren. He never got his phone back.
The significance of the study
The study indicates that offenders tend to commit such crimes near the areas where they live. Kuralarasan explains that this is because these areas and the ones around are familiar to them — they would know all the roads and police patrol timings, they would know when the roads are crowded and when they are relatively empty, and which roads could provide easy escape routes after an attempted or successful snatching. Areas that are far from their residence may not be that familiar and hence offenders do not take a risk.
But this is not the only factor determining the choice of location by snatching offenders. An important finding of the study, particularly with implications for prevention and nabbing of culprits, is that when an offender has already committed a crime in a particular area, he or she is more likely to come back to the same area. “Once they have committed a crime in a particular location [without getting caught], they have formed some knowledge about the criminal opportunities there. They feel comfortable and emboldened to come back to the same location,” elucidates Kuralarasan, stating that an offender may come back to the same area, within six months from the first crime.
“Certain crimes are male-dominated and certain crimes are female-dominated. Snatching is a male-dominated crime. It involves a lot of physical activity. An offender has to snatch a chain and escape quickly. Men can run faster usually,” illustrates Kuralarasan.
Such crimes are committed in a matter of seconds, and one reason why offenders are between 19 to 25 years old is that they tend to own faster bikes. Most of the time, the offenders escape even before the victim realises and reacts to the crime.
In general, says Muralidharan, “Thieves from North India come to Tamil Nadu and other south Indians states for snatching. They come here because people here wear more valuable jewellery as a routine practice compared to people in North India. So, the spoils are more.” Google Trends reveals that Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana tops the search for ‘gold’, as per a The New Indian Express report.
Ironically, however, snatching offences rarely happen near marriage halls and temples where people tend to wear more jewellery than while going to provision stores or spas. On the contrary, it is more frequent near provision stores and supermarkets, or personal care businesses such as saloons for men and women, spas, and beauty parlours.
“This pattern is because people tend to be more relaxed about their possessions when they are in such familiar locations, than at weddings or temples. This careless attitude is exploited by the offenders while snatching,” explains Kuralarasan. He suggests that the police can install barricades, speed breakers, better street-lighting in such vulnerable areas that have seen frequent instances of snatching.
“Offenders can snatch in any lonely area with nobody in the vicinity except the victim. The crime can happen at any time. They [snatchers] will be waiting until a victim is alone,” adds Muralidharan.
What can citizens do to stop being victimised?
Kuralarasan however strongly feels that prevention of crime is not the duty of the police alone, but also of citizens. “We already know that the police in our cities have a high workload. To reduce their workload, we need to understand what we can do to avoid victimization. When the number of cases decreases, the pressure on the police force will decrease; then only can they focus more on prevention,” he says.
The researcher parts with some advice for citizens that could make them tougher targets for snatching offenders:
- If a person is talking on the phone to someone while walking on the road, it is better to use Bluetooth or wireless earphones and keep the phone inside a bag or pocket. Naren had his phone in his hand while walking.
- It is better for a person to walk on the right side of the road, whenever possible. Usually, snatchers come up behind the victim on a two-wheeler and snatch the chain in most cases. When people walk on the right side of the road, vehicles come in the opposite direction, thus lowering the odds of being attacked from behind. Of course, walking on the right side of the road may not be possible in all cases.
- Women wearing chains should wrap a shawl around their necks. There is less likelihood that the snatcher will be able to take it through the shawl, as the crime has to be committed in seconds for the offenders to get away with it. So, a simple shawl can make a person a tougher target.
- Most importantly, everyone should be aware that they could very well be the next victim and accordingly stay alert. Crime can happen wherever, whenever, against any person. Reacting after the crime happens is not helpful and cannot really prevent crimes.