ON first sight it looks like a group of friends loitering on a street corner.
But look closely and you might spot an earpiece or a pair of handcuffs sticking out from under a jacket.
Police officers and police community support officers (PCSOs) are putting on their civvies and wandering the roads, paths and back alleys of Hartlepool.
During my night on patrol, groups of confused youths were approached and only twigged what was happening when the officers’ notepads came out.
As one teenager put it: “You’ve gone all undercover, why are you sneaking about like that?”
The answer is that Hartlepool has been hit by a spate of metal thefts with thieves clambering on to roofs to steal lead, ripping gas pipes off walls and damaging rail lines.
Operation Duracell was launched to catch them red-handed and it is already proving a success while running in conjunction with the day-time actions of Operation Throttle, which sees officers posted on scrapyard gates. Inspector Lee Rukin, who is running the covert operation, chatted to me while his staff targeted the Owton Manor area of town on foot, in unmarked cars and on bicycles.
He told me the sad story of a woman in her 80s who is now in respite care after lead was stolen from her roof. She had slipped on the rainwater that leaked in and spent a week in hospital after cracking her hip.
Dressed in jeans and a hoodie, Insp Rukin said: “This is not a victimless crime. It is affecting people’s lives.
“It’s not nice to hear people scampering over your roof, or to find your home has been damaged for the sake of a few quid.
“We are going out to challenge and frustrate the people doing this and to send out the message that they can’t just go out doing what they like without being stopped.”
And disrupt they did as they checked on homes of “known troublemakers”, stopped and quizzed people walking the streets late at night, told youngsters to get themselves home or face being locked up and recorded the clothing details of those they came across.
The police were also joined on the night by three Labour councillors, Marjorie James and Angie Wilcox, from the Owton ward, and Stephen Akers-Belcher, from the Rift House ward.
They helped spot any trouble and have been in discussions about how to help cut the crime.
And they were on hand to see two men arrested on suspicion of attempted theft after they were allegedly seen trying the rear doors of a parked up Transit van in Eskdale Court.
Coun Akers-Belcher said: “We have heard stories of people thinking that someone is going to fall through their ceiling.
“People feel frightened and because they don’t know if they are going to break in or damage their home. It’s creating havoc. It is not a victimless crime and people need to help to put an end to it.”
Coun James said: “We volunteered because we don’t want to lose more lead.
“We have also been talking about what we can do with other agencies to put an end to this.
“Lead can be replaced with material that won’t get stolen, so we are looking into funding to kickstart a campaign.”
Insp Rukin is urging all residents to have the same community spirit as the councillors, be vigilant and report any suspicious activity in their streets.
But he stressed that their role is just to be “look-outs” for the force and in no circumstances should anyone confront any suspects.
He added: “The community are our eyes and ears and I cannot thank the councillors enough for coming out. This is neighbourhood watch at its best.
“If you see or hear something, let us know straightaway. Don’t wait until the morning.
“If there’s someone on the roof, ring 999. That is the best way for us to catch someone red-handed, both maximising the evidence we can gather and the chance of us recovering property and any weapons or tools they may have on them.”