Editor’s note: Some members of the Transit Bureau Special Operations Division Citywide Pickpocket Unit faces have been obscured to protect their identity and to keep them from harm as they engage criminals in plain clothes.
The NYPD has created a new squad of officers targeting pickpocketers above and below ground, and amNewYork Metro went undercover along with them as they nabbed criminals who combed the holiday crowds and victimized them for their valuables.
Dubbed the Transit Bureau Special Operations Division Citywide Pickpocket Unit, this plain-clothed team began their covert operations in September to cuff the wandering hands of pickpockets in the subway system. The thieves’ sticky fingers have also gone topside for the holiday season, snatching cell phones, wallets, and other valuables.
Based inside the subway system themselves, the Citywide Pickpocket Unit has a unique talent of spotting what is often invisible to many New Yorkers. Donning sweaters, jeans, and coats, these specialists keep their eyes peeled for pickpockets who jostle a crowd, and in the blink of an eye, can make-off with the contents of a pocket, backpack, or purse.
“Getting unnecessarily close to people, the way they look at people. You know, there’s all these different cues that we kind of pick up on,” Sergeant John Pritchard explained to amNewYork Metro.
Many pickpockets are incredibly talented at swiping goods and often operate in pairs, leaving law enforcement to utilize those even more skilled to stop them in their tracks.
Unit members told stories of how suspects use scarves and even tissues to conceal their hands as they plunge into pockets. According to NYPD sources, the criminals are often a part of an extended family, ranging from teens to seniors and sell items such as cell phones abroad for a handsome profit.
Police also warn that a victim’s loss is not measured merely in monetary loss, but also in emotional distress since some items may have sentimental value or phones that store priceless memories.
“A lot of them [the victims] tell me it’s not about the money. It’s about what’s on the phones–voice conversations that they don’t have backed up in iCloud, pictures that they don’t have backed up in iCloud that is completely lost now,” Lieutenant Jonathan Cedeno said. “So, it’s more than just a piece of property. You can’t even put a value on some of the stuff that’s on the phones that people are losing.”
The Citywide Pickpocket Unit pour over hours of surveillance footage in an attempt to identify suspects in addition to trailing those they believe to be attempting to steal. With tourists back in the Big Apple and shoppers flocking to popular locations for holiday purchases, these crooks are more prevalent than ever.
However, both Cedeno and Pritchard say they have been able to make a meaningful impact on illicit activity through multiple arrests, including at the Rockefeller Center tree lighting.
The officers didn’t just tell amNewYork Metro how they catch these thieves — they showed us last week.
We followed Sergeant Pritchard, Lieutenant Cedeno, and their team as they weaved through crowds on train platforms and in carriages, they kept their heads on a swivel, scanning for both known offenders and those with ill intentions. With the holiday season being in full effect, the Citywide Pickpocket Unit also ventured above ground in Midtown, tackling lively commercial areas.
The effort to thwart wallet lifters and pocket pickers led to Bryant Park where hundreds shopped for gifts, snapped photos of the area’s tree, and kicked-up ice on the rink. Here the plain-clothed crew spotted individuals known to police for making off with valuables.
Officers kept a close watch on the individuals as the suspects appeared to jostle amidst patrons in Bryant Park’s Winter Village, keeping a distance but never letting them out of sight.
“The numbers speak for themselves. We are out here, so I mean, you’ll get caught, you know, it’s just gonna be a matter of time,” Sergeant Pritchard said in a foreboding warning to would-be criminals and get caught they did.
It took seconds for the thieves to strike, and less still for the NYPD to respond. One member of the unit pushed a man up against a winter village hut while also cuffing a second female crook inside the gift shop.
“Check your wallets and your phones, make sure you have everything,” one detective told a crowd gathered to watch the commotion.
According to NYPD sources, the pair were identified as 41-year-old Victor Medina and 22-year-old Nicole Camargo, both of Queens. Medina allegedly used a scarf to conceal his hands while Camargo is accused of serving as a distraction. The pair attempted to struggle but were secured and were even caught red-handed with stolen items despite feigning ignorance.
Police say Medina not only stole a wallet, but he also had two credit cards on him that didn’t belong to him while Camargo when searched had one credit card that didn’t belong to her.
Both individuals were wanted for an 11 cases citywide grand larceny pattern since August, encompassing the 17th, Midtown North, 108th, 120th, 114th, and 115th Precincts.
Shockingly, Medina has been arrested 9 times in one month for grand larceny while Camargo has been cuffed 6 times since September 15.
The process of these criminals is so smooth and vast, many don’t even know it has taken place.
Some 20 minutes after the arrests were made, 25-year-old Jaemin Gonzales flagged amNewYork Metro, citing that she had lost her wallet. Upon informing the team, police said they had recovered the wallet during the arrests.
Gonzales slapped her hands to her face in amazement, profusely thanking the team.
“I wouldn’t think this would happen. Thank you so much!” Gonzales said in disbelief. “This is a busy area, I didn’t think it would happen.”
A police cruiser escorted Gonzales to the local station house where she could retrieve her belonging.
The Transit Bureau Special Operations Division Citywide Pickpocket Unit will continue to monitor busy areas for the holidays, after which their primary stomping ground will be the transit system.