That’s my bag!

While students relax around campus, many forget the dangers of theft and criminality

Crime coverage never ceases to engage. Omnipresent in Irish media for the last three years is the ongoing Hutch-Kinahan gang feud. Since 2015, the battle has preoccupied the public conscious, brought into particular focus two years ago when numerous gangland hits took place across inner city Dublin. With shootings occurring around Parnell Street and North Cumberland Street, for many it was too close to home.

Even more dramatic was the live-stream coverage of the Lidl looting during Storm Emma. Watching the hooded looters ransack the store in multiple feeds across social media lent an immediacy to the anarchy. The icy conditions and white canvas evoked a dystopian reality where law and order have broken down. The events rippled across social media, with the arrival of the JCB digger attracting disbelief. With snow banks and burning cars to distract emergency services while the suspects attempted to break open a safe, it left an impression few would forget. Despite its Hollywood level details, it brought the harrowing realisation that society, even in Ireland, isn’t as distant from crime as we would like to believe.

For all its dramatisation and media coverage, the reality of crime may seem far removed from long days sitting in lecture theatres or sprawled on Arts Block couches. Comfort can be deceiving, as the signs on the concrete walls reminding students to watch their bags attest. There is something curious in the familiarity of a location that causes one’s guard to drop and to become complacent. How many students would act as they do in college in a public library? Even for those amongst us who keep their guard up, how much of a threat are theft and criminality?

Slipping through the Arts Block

Describing the theft as clearly visible on the footage, Agnew said two men were stood behind her in the downstairs area of the Arts Building.”

Speaking to Trinity News, Eavan Agnew, a BESS graduate, described their encounter with theft in college. Chatting to her friend at the high tables by the Perch cafe, Agnew’s handbag was at her feet. After spending an hour that morning relaxing, she left for a meeting. There she realised that her laptop was no longer with her. “Originally I thought I had left it at home. I knew I hadn’t left it behind anywhere as I had not used the laptop prior. I then realised it had been stolen.” While the laptop was in a case, the handbag did not zip closed.“I went to all of the security on campus to report it but there wasn’t much they could do.” Agnew described waiting for security to gain their superior’s permission to check the CCTV, eventually watching the footage a few days later.

Describing the theft as clearly visible on the footage, Agnew said two men were stood behind her in the downstairs area of the Arts Building. One faced Agnew and the other had his back to her. Dressed as students, they blended into the busy morning rush between classes and Agnew did not notice them in any way. The two men chatted for a few minutes and then they made their move.

One of the men crouched down as if to tie his shoelaces. Then, reaching through the other man’s legs, he took Agnew’s laptop from her bag. The incident took place so inconspicuously that Agnew never even noticed: “I was completely oblivious. If I had turned around I would have only seen one man’s back and I would have presumed he was a student. They were definitely professionals.”

Agnew said the manager of Trinity Security, Michael Murray, watched the entire CCTV footage: “I was only allowed to see the section that just showed me due to data protection”. Murray said the two laptop thieves had been watching Agnew for 20 minutes before they stole the laptop. “They saw I was relaxed and not checking or reaching down to my bag. I was chatting away!”

Monitoring the MacNeill

“As the figure made a dash for the escape route, he was apprehended by a male mature student.”

“As the figure made a dash for the escape route, he was apprehended by a male mature student.”

Perhaps more dramatic was an attempted incident of laptop theft that happened that in a lecture theatre while a class was taking place. Speaking to Trinity News, Sarah Grillet, a third year Earth Science student, recalled her experience. Sitting in the MacNeill theatre in the Hamilton building, Grillet had just finished her statistics test. With 120 or so students in the busy lecture hall, she kept her laptop bag at her feet and was preoccupied with her work.

She thought nothing of it when someone sat down behind her. Describing how “no one really noticed him” despite being “quite sketchy”, Grillet painted an image of a man in a nondescript grey jacket, boots and scarf. Before long Grillet was shocked. As the figure made a dash for the escape route, he was apprehended by a male mature student. With the cry, “hang on, what’s going on?” ringing out across the lecture hall, a number of other students apprehended the would-be thief.

After two mature students and two lecturers retrieved the stolen goods, Grillet said she hadn’t even noticed her bag had been taken: “He ended up having five to six laptop bags. One [was] under his coat. At this point I still didn’t realise that one of these was my bag.” Grillet seemed amazed at the ability of the thief: “It was only when I looked down and one of the girls said ‘that’s your bag’. It had my laptop, [with] lots of valuable stuff.”

Speaking to Professor Philip Lawton, the lecturer at the time, he described the incident as “a bit of a strange one”. Relaxed and chatting to the students after their test, he noticed someone coming down the stairs with a bag. Hearing a group of students shouting and trying to slow him down, he moved over to assess the situation. “The real issue was, and the difficulty for me, is I’m not sure how you engage. I just reacted on instinct but I’m not sure what the protocol is.” When the students identified the man as a would-be thief, Lawton decided to intervene. “He was claiming this woman’s bag was his, and so I took it off him and handed it to one of the students.” After the man proceeded to exit the MacNeill, Lawton and a number of others followed him. Alerting the security guard, the suspect managed to manoeuvre his way past, only to be apprehended by the lecturer and students. With security taking charge, Lawton returned to the lecture hall to continue his class.

“You feel violated and upset too. It was unnerving to know that they had been watching me for 20 minutes before they stole the laptop.”

Describing the incident as a blur, Lawton described the difficulty in reacting: “I actually thought it might’ve been one of the students messing at first, but by the time I went over it was clear something was up.The weird thing in those scenarios is you don’t know what they’ll do or how they’ll react. At the same time as a lecturer I feel I have a responsibility to react, or to deal with it.” While all items were recovered, Lawton thinks the issue raised a number of interesting issues regarding a mixed responsibility of the university towards the public and towards its student body. “While there is a duty to the students, the university is a part of the public realm of the city where you don’t want to restrict access to parts of the campus.” Furthermore, he commented that “the person himself was really confused. There’s really powerful reasons why individuals end up in the situations where they turn to these methods of crime.”

Trinity News previously reported on some incidents where emergency services have been called to campus or made arrests. Yet despite these incidences being reported, Agnew described the sense of violation in where before crime seemingly didn’t manifest itself: “I was annoyed with myself that I had let it happen while it was right beside me. It was really frustrating to watch it back. I was willing myself to turn around and catch them! You feel violated and upset too. It was unnerving to know that they had been watching me for 20 minutes before they stole the laptop.” While student awareness is key to reducing crime, Agnew feels in cases like hers, vigilance wasn’t a factor: “I felt really guilty even though looking back at the footage, there wasn’t anything I could have done”. Yet the signs continue to litter the concrete walls –  “watch your belongings” – as students settle down, try to work, and shut out the city outside with all of its distractions and, apparently, all of its dangers.