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When Metro transit cop Cedric Mitchell volunteered for a special pickpocket detail near the start of his career, in 1988, he figured it would just be a good opportunity to get out of his uniform for a while. Growing up in Clinton, Md., Mitchell had exposure to pickpockets only through Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in high school, and his inexperience made for a frustrating training period.

His lieutenant would point out pickpockets with ease, seemingly able to dip his hand into the blur of passengers and come up with a live, wriggling thief with every try. “Did you see him, Mitch?” he would ask. “What about him?” Mitchell had no idea what he was talking about. I just see people, he would think. What am I missing? Why am I not seeing what he sees?

After a few months, he finally began to notice things: the incongruity of someone wearing a coat with another one draped over an arm; a dry-cleaning bag containing a soiled, wrinkled shirt; running shoes with a suit; the way someone moved against the current of riders.

One day while scanning the streams of subway riders at Metro Center, he noticed an irregularity in the pattern. A man walked through the crowd, casing passengers and staying in constant motion but not going anywhere—a pickpocket. I got one! Mitchell thought.

Mitchell watched his suspect, primed to make his first pickpocket arrest. His pulse quickened as the man walked up behind a woman, but Mitchell didn’t see his hands go into her purse. Then the man backed off and walked away. Mitchell figured the guy missed; he followed the man up the escalator, but he made no more attempts. He saw the same man in the subway a few weeks later, sizing up another woman and stepping behind her. This time, Mitchell saw where his hands were—in his pockets, fondling himself.

“There’s another criminal that moves exactly like a pickpocket, except for the end result: perverts,” explains Mitchell. “They both go into and out of a crowd. They both have to find the right person that works for him or her. The only difference between a pervert and a pickpocket is how they stand. Pickpockets stand off-center, off to the side, so they can get in and out. A pervert will be right here.” Mitchell stands directly behind an imaginary mark, leading with his groin.

Those first few months on his own, every potential pickpocket turned out to be a pervert. Mitchell says he became so familiar with them that he would see a fondler leaning against a wall, watch a beautiful woman walk past, and think, Oh, she’s a nice one. Why isn’t he going for that? And when he did make his move, on someone much less attractive, he’d wonder, Why her? “But we all have that person who moves us,” says Mitchell.

The pervert detours were among many turns that Mitchell, 46, has taken in his quest to rid the subway of pickpockets. Yet they were also instructive, helping shape him into a better pickpocket detective. For in order to do his job well, Mitchell needs a quick mind, a calm, nonconfrontational demeanor, a keen sense of observation, oodles of patience, and platinum nerves—the very attributes of a good pickpocket.

Washington’s Metrorail system comprises 106 miles of track and 86 stations, and it moves 750,000 passengers on an average weekday. Patrolling the hole, as Mitchell and his officers call it, for the handful of pickpockets that might be working on any given day is no easy task. Just about every American city with a subway system has pickpockets, as the venue provides everything they desire: many victims, constant movement of people, display and exchange of money, and crowds in which to hide.

When Mitchell works the hole, he often munches food or sips a soda pop; perps are unlikely to suspect that the guy breaking Metro laws is a cop. Sometimes rookie officers will tell him to toss out the drink.

Even so, Mitchell readily admits that catching pickpockets often comes down to pure luck. During President Clinton’s first inauguration, Metro officers noticed two women milling around the Smithsonian station platform wearing full-length fur coats. The cops stopped them, took them to a back room, and then asked the magic question: Could they look in their purses? Inexplicably, the women agreed. (“I don’t know why people let the police look in their bags,” says Mitchell. “I guess they think if they say yes, they’ll just let them go.”) Inside the purses, the officers found seven wallets, none of them belonging to the women.

“Oh, we’re from Chicago,” one of them explained with a wave of her hand. “We heard all the problems you all had with pickpockets so our girlfriends asked us to carry their wallets for them.”

The officers looked at each other. “OK, what are their names?” one asked.

Busted, the women spilled the goods. They were just mules, they said. In fact, they claimed, the guy they were working with was probably waiting right outside the door. The officers opened the door, found the leader, and arrested all three. Mitchell met them at the station, where the man asked if he could call his lawyer.

The officer laughed. “You’re in D.C.,” he said. “No long-distance phone calls.”

“I have a lawyer in D.C.,” said the man.

Sure enough, he had a lawyer in Washington. On K Street.

Mitchell called the office and left a message with the answering service. Ten minutes later, the lawyer called back, and the first thing Monday morning, he showed up to get his client out of jail. Before he left town, the alleged pickpocket had the gall to ask for his fur coats back. Mitchell later found out that the man had an attorney in every major city from California to New York, all on retainer.

Such is the life of a “cannon,” the highest echelon in the pickpocket hierarchy. “That’s the great thing—he knew the system,” says Mitchell. “If you get locked up for the first time in some place, they’ll most likely let you go on personal recognizance.”

The system doesn’t place a high value on pickpocket collars. The Metro-cop shop, for instance, has 423 total officers, a fraction of whom serve on pickpocket details; at any given time, there are less than 10 officers working on pickpockets. Nor is D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey going to declare a pickpocket state of emergency anytime soon. According to spokesperson Officer Darron Jackson, the D.C. Police Department doesn’t have a single person dedicated to pickpocket crimes. Nor is pickpocket-busting part of the training curriculum, leaving Mitchell, who made detective in 1993, as the de facto head of anti-pickpocket efforts in the city.

Because a skilled pickpocket leaves his victims thinking they just lost or misplaced their wallets, pickpocket statistics tend to be soft. So Mitchell must use other types of information to help him figure out where to deploy his details. Instead of reported pickpocketings, he analyzes reports of lost wallets, as well as eyeglass cases or other things that pickpockets, navigating by feel, sometimes mistake for wallets. When he identifies a rash, he tries to isolate the hot spot. Sometimes he’ll drop undercover officers there—other times, he’ll just use highly conspicuous police officers, though the better pickpockets aren’t dissuaded by uniformed officers on their turf. In fact, Mitchell says they often prefer having them around, because it means their victims will have their guards down. The cannons have so much confidence in their abilities that they might sting someone just to prove a point.

Mitchell estimates that there are about 100 pickpockets working in Washington, a figure that increases when out-of-towners descend on the city during big events: March Madness, the NBA playoffs, presidential inaugurations. Some die off and some quit the game, but few give it up for good. It’s just too lucrative and the jail times are so low. “The average bank robber gets $3,000 to $4,000,” says Mitchell. “However, if you walk into a bank and even imply you have a gun, and you get caught, you’re getting five years for the gun, plus a federal charge. That’s 10 years, at least. If I pick your pocket, steal your identity, and take out a $50,000 loan, and I get caught, I do a year. Who’s the smarter man? Now, I don’t condone any criminal—that’s why I have this job—but if you’re going to be a criminal, be a smart criminal.”

While the basic crime hasn’t changed since Dickens’ day, pickpockets have become increasingly sophisticated over the years in terms of how they exploit the contents of a wallet. Identity theft has opened up all sorts of new avenues for pickpockets, whether making purchases with stolen credit cards or using them to open new credit cards (just about every department store these days offers instant credit). Debit cards are particularly valuable, as they tell the pickpocket where the victim banks, and with a good fake ID, a crook can not only clean out the account but also take out loans in the victim’s name. If pickpockets don’t want to play the credit cards, they can always sell them off. According to Mitchell, a regular credit card sells for between $75 and $100; a platinum card fetches a bit more.

Mitchell has noticed that pickpockets use stolen credit cards to rent cars, the most common type being minivans, because they have multiple cigarette lighters. Pickpockets can pull into a parking lot, plug in all the computers and printers and equipment they need to forge identification, and drive to the bank or store to use the cards. If it’s been more than 30 minutes since they’ve stolen the wallet, they’ll head to a gas station and swipe the card at the pump to check whether or not the card has been canceled.

And then there are the Robber Hoods, as Mitchell calls them, pickpockets who will pinch a wallet, copy down all the credit card numbers and personal information, and then mail the wallet back to the victim. The victim, grateful for the good Samaritan, goes on with life. The Robber Hood warehouses the information for six months, maybe a year, and then gets to work. By the time the victim starts receiving bills and past-due notices, the pickpocket has moved on to another wallet—such is the thief’s familiarity with credit-card billing cycles. “They have it all worked out, man,” says Mitchell. “It’s all there. Everything that we do to make life easier for us, with this criminal, we make it easier for them.”

Mitchell estimates that he’s made fewer than 100 pickpocket arrests in his career. His first came in the fall of 1988, and it went down just as he had been taught it would. He spotted a man at Metro Center with a dry-cleaning bag draped over his arm (a classic “shade,” or something that hides a pickpocket’s hand action) talking with a woman. At first, he figured the man was just chatting her up, but then he noticed that when the train pulled in, he would stop his conversation and start looking over the crowd. Mitchell walked past the man to get a look at his dry cleaning. In the bag was a woman’s blouse.

Mitchell followed him to Union Station, excited and nervous, thinking that the pickpocket would surely notice the tail, but he didn’t. As they got off the train, the man dropped his shade to his side, and fell in step behind another woman. On the escalator, the man gave one final look around, not noticing Mitchell, who was hiding about four people back, and made his move.

Like a shark closing its eyes when it opens its jaws to bite, pickpockets step into what Mitchell calls “the zone” just before they strike, a momentary state of such deep concentration that they briefly become dissociated from their surroundings. It lasts for only a second or two, but that’s when they are vulnerable, and that’s when Mitchell, watching intently the whole time, made his first pickpocket collar. “Man, I wish I had one of them video cameras, because this was perfect,” says Mitchell. “And that’s how you catch them. You just have to be patient.”

A Navy brat, Mitchell grew up in Prince George’s County, where as a youngster, he loved gangster movies, particularly the first two Godfather films. “I think the whole criminal thing excited him,” says Clifton Douglas, a childhood friend with whom he now coaches youth basketball. “And now being able to match wits with them excites him.”

Mitchell was a sharpshooting swingman on the Gwynn Park basketball team and earned a scholarship to Shenandoah College in Winchester, Va., but found out when he arrived on campus that the school had eliminated his scholarship. He went home and started working, first as a runner for a bank and then as a security guard at Northern Virginia Community College. That job led to similar appointments at the Treasury Department and the Library of Congress.

In 1985, at the suggestion of some retired D.C. police officers, he joined the Metro police. He figured there was a reason why he kept applying for positions in law enforcement and kept getting the jobs. His first few months as a Metro officer were difficult. Patrolling the streets wearing a gun and a bulletproof vest was a far cry from the relatively easy pace of policing the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. The first time he got into a scrap while trying to arrest an unruly suspect, he wondered if he had made the right choice. “I just stayed prayed-up,” he says. “‘Lord, please don’t let nothing happen to me.’”

Nothing did, and his prayers were answered when Lt. Anthony Montgomery, the house pickpocket expert, came looking for volunteers for his detail. Montgomery and Mitchell spent countless hours together chasing pickpockets, and growing pains aside, Montgomery was impressed with Mitchell’s aptitude for the job. “Cedric had a lot of talents that other people didn’t have,” says Montgomery. “A lot of people, it’s just a job and they go home, but he tried to learn everything he could about the culture, and that made the difference. He became the person I relied upon the most, and he made me look good. There’s no question that he was the heir apparent.”

When Montgomery moved on to a different assignment in 1996, Mitchell was crowned as successor. Pickpockets, he realized, were his niche. Part of the allure was just how little attention pickpockets received. It was also the curious, almost quaint set of rules by which pickpockets live. “They’ve got a lot of game,” says Mitchell. “I don’t think law enforcement gives them their due. They’re so smart.

“It’s a little sneaky, it’s a little edgy, but it ain’t the violent edgy,” Mitchell continues. “It’s more of a brain thing. You’re trying to outthink. You’re trying to plot their next move. The game is all psychological. That’s what hooked me.”

The game is also exceedingly difficult. Two plainclothes officers, Jamal Anderson and Tracie Saunders, have a combined eight years of experience on the force and just a single pickpocket arrest to show for it. They’ve seen dozens more, but they can’t arrest pickpockets just for coming into the hole. Officers are hamstrung until the thief completes the act.

Anthony M. Montgomery, a K-9 officer and son of Lt. Montgomery, worked on some of Mitchell’s details early in his career. By then, Mitchell had become the expert and Montgomery the hapless rookie. “Except for my father and Cedric,” says Anthony Montgomery, “nobody can say they’re good at catching pickpockets.”

“People always say, ‘Mitch, you had to have been a pickpocket,’” laughs Mitchell. “Nope. You’ve just got to have the right mentality for it.”

The job is more lifestyle than profession. When Mitchell walks by a fancy hotel, he sizes up the clientele for easy marks, and he considers the marquee listing the day’s events as a veritable menu for pickpockets. Every spring he and his buddies take a trip to watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament somewhere—Indianapolis, Charlotte, New Orleans—and instead of watching the games, Mitchell finds himself scanning the crowds for pickpockets. He usually gets his friends to start looking, too. Sometimes he’ll recognize faces from Washington. Even when he’s out with his family, taking in a basketball game at Verizon Center, he’ll notice something about a person’s eyes or hands or posture and point them out as a pickpocket. “To me, they stand out like they got on a red suit,” he says. “My kids always joke, ‘Do you ever stop?’ I can’t help it. It’s just part of me.”

When he visits a public bathroom, he wonders why the stall dividers don’t reach the floor, because john workers like to snatch purses set on the floor from the next stall. Security people at the Baltimore harbor once called Mitchell in to help them with john workers. Mitchell went into the bathrooms and immediately saw the problem. “Take the hooks off the backs of the doors,” he said. That way, thieves wouldn’t be able to snatch coats or purses hung from the hooks.

Mitchell returned to Washington thinking he’d solved the problem. But pickpockets are creatures of habit, and if a play works, they’ll do what they can to ensure that it keeps working. A few months later, Mitchell received a phone call from Baltimore harbor security: Apparently, some enterprising pickpockets had replaced the door hooks.

Pickpockets act as an indicator species. They were onto identity theft long before hackers started stealing PIN numbers. When women began getting picked, it was because they’d become more equal-wage earners and had better credit. There’s a reason that pickpockets still prefer to sting whites and Asians rather than blacks, says Mitchell. “Society tells us that blacks have the least,” he explains. “We’re poor, we have bad credit, and culturally, we have a thing about space. We’re confrontational if we feel you’re invading our space.”

It’s this kind of profiling that intrigues Mitchell the most. For years, Mitchell tried to get pickpockets to talk when he arrested them, but he always seemed to ask the wrong questions. When he pressed them for their accomplices, he was met with a steely glare. “That’s your job,” was the usual reply. “You figure it out.” Then he locked up a pickpocket for the third time. On the way to booking, he remarked, “Man, when are you gonna quit?”

For some reason, the man decided to talk. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said.

“Well, how’s this game played?” Mitchell asked. “School me.”

“What do you want to know? I’m not just gonna tell you everything. You got to ask the questions.”

Mitchell thought. “You see thousands of people every day,” he said. “How did you decide this woman was the one worthy of getting picked?”

The pickpocket laid it out for him: Though her clothes appeared unremarkable, he could tell right away that they were very expensive. The problem with most officers, he explained, was that they didn’t know what to look for. They were too easily fooled by a nice-looking suit. Meanwhile, the pickpocket is scoping the man dressed in a polo shirt and tennis shoes, because he’s the one wearing a Rolex. Matter of fact, the pickpocket told Mitchell, that other man’s suit is probably cheap. Rich people, except for athletes and young movie stars, don’t bling.

“It was just intriguing to me that they pay that…close…attention…to…detail,” says Mitchell, snapping his fingers to punctuate each word. “They know if it’s a Coach bag, and how much that bag costs. They go up to New York and study the fakes. When they’re in the department stores using stolen credit cards, they’re feeling the material on the clothes so they can tell a Versace suit from a Men’s Warehouse one. They spend all this time to learn their trade. And that’s what it is. It’s their trade.”

When she was 19, “Mercedes” began working with one of the better crews in the city, attracted by the money and the travel. She mentions traveling cross-country twice with the same pride that accompanies stories of her biggest picks. Mercede’s specialties were stalling (holding up the victim, often by asking for directions, so that the picker could make the play) and forging signatures. The first time Mitchell ever met her was when he locked her up in 1992, and the conversation wasn’t very friendly. He was young and Mercedes decided to test him. But Mitchell was never adversarial with her, even though he seemed to keep arresting her. One day, she learned Mitchell’s first name and decided to give him a nickname, calling him “Ced.” “Some officers like to stick it to [suspects]—‘You’re the scum of the earth’ and all that,” says Mitchell. “But I always treated her with respect. Not too tight with the cuffs, never led her by the cuffs.”

Each time she was arrested for pickpocketing, Mercedes did minimal time. Then, she was picked up at Pentagon City mall with traces of heroin in her purse and went away for four years. Mitchell visited her from time to time to talk about pickpocketing. After her release, Mercedes went straight, enrolling in college and getting a job. In her free time, she helps Mitchell out when he gives talks about pickpockets.

“I’ve known her for about 12 years,” says Mitchell. “We go way back. She’s a different person than when I first met her, and I have no problem calling her my friend. Some law enforcement may not feel that’s right. But that’s the great thing about life. People can change.

“It’s not my job to rehabilitate you, but if you’re trying to get your life together, I’m pulling for you, I’m going to support you,” Mitchell continues. “Some people think that’s crazy, but the way I look at it, that’s one less criminal on the street I’ve got to worry about. If more people looked at it this way, we’d probably be better off. Because that’s what it’s all about: getting criminals off the street.”

Pickpockets talk to Mitchell all the time these days. They’ll even call his cell phone, usually to needle him. Sometimes they’ll ask why he wasn’t at the Redskins game last weekend, because they tore the place up. (As a transit detective, FedExField, RFK Stadium, and all but the Metro station of Verizon Center are outside of Mitchell’s jurisdiction). Or they’ll tell him they saw him on television, giving a sound bite during some segment on pickpockets, and joke that he needs to keep quiet, because they would prefer staying under the radar, thank you very much. “Dang you, Mitch, you need to stay off TV,” one good-naturedly told him after spotting him on Good Morning America. “You’re putting too much light on us. Nobody talks about this but you.”

“What are you doing up that early in the morning, anyway?” Mitchell asked.

“Mitch, we get up early, man,” the man laughed. “The early bird gets the worm, baby.”

Mitchell suspects that deep down, some of them secretly enjoy the notoriety of having their profession discussed on the news. After all, if Mitchell’s talking about them on national television, they must be important. As with all highly skilled tradesmen, from athletes to surgeons, pickpockets have outsized egos. They have to. How else could you find the nerve to walk right up to someone big enough to pound you into jelly, stick your hand in his back pocket, and take his wallet? That takes confidence that your brains can best any brawn. “Most criminals are tense when they’re about to do something, but pickpockets are smooth,” says Anderson. “They focus on the wallet like it’s already theirs and they’re just trying to take it back.”

Mitchell says there are pickpockets who don’t bother with women, not because women still tend to earn less than men or have less of a credit history but because going into a purse isn’t a challenge. One pickpocket was downright offended when Mitchell mentioned that he had watched him set up a woman victim. “Man, I’m a professional,” the man said. “I don’t hit ladies.”

Pickpockets will call Mitchell just to let him know that they know he’s put out a detail, and when an officer on Mitchell’s detail pulls an amateur move like wearing combat boots while “undercover,” that’s an insult. Mitchell once appeared on the news to advise men to carry their wallets in their front pockets and promptly received a phone call from a pickpocket who figured he might want to know that they “had the front pocket down pat.” (Mitchell, by the way, carries his wallet either in his coat, keeping the coat buttoned, or in his back pocket, but positioned horizontally, or “lying in bed.” “You can’t steal it like that,” he says.)

The elder Montgomery says that Mitchell’s relationships with pickpockets are a testament to the respect they have for his abilities. “Pickpockets have a lot of pride in what they do,” he explains. “So if they come across an adversary who is able to detect what they’re doing, they tend to see you as almost on their level…and they’ll give you all the trade secrets in conversation. If [an officer] has a pickpocket’s respect, then [he] is really doing a good job.”

So, all the attention that Mitchell brings to pickpockets is just part of the give and take with his quarry. “It’s a game,” says Mitchell. “Sometimes they win, sometimes I’ll win, or Jamal or Tracie will win. But they always win more than us. They’ll pick more pockets than we’ll lock up.”

“Hey, it’s job security,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me anymore.”

On the street, however, pickpockets know that going into the hole is far riskier now than it used to be. “When I was out there, Metro was a haven,” says Mercedes. “We teared it up! But word is out about what [Mitchell’s] doing. Now, Metro isn’t even a quarter of what it used to be up [until], oh, 1995.”

Putting pickpockets in jail, and keeping them there, might be even more difficult than catching them. Just about everything in someone’s wallet is replaceable, and by targeting tourists and visitors, pickpockets lessen the odds that the victim will bother to come back to the city for the court date—no victim, no case. When pickpocket cases actually do reach sentencing, the punishment often gets knocked down to “fit the crime.”

Mitchell’s first collar, the man on the escalator, might have benefited from the shadowy nature of his own craft. The prosecutor thought they had a strong case, but the grand jury decided not to indict on the pickpocket charge. They just couldn’t believe that Mitchell could have been so close to have seen the pickpocketing take place.

“With the risk–reward of pickpockets, it’s a no-brainer,” says Mitchell. “You keep doing it. If they go away, they say, ‘I needed a break, anyway.’ That’s their way of cycling off drugs. This crime is the best crime in the world. I think any criminal who does anything but pick pockets is a stupid criminal. I’m amazed more people don’t do it. It’s not hard to pick a pocket.”

Plus, there are no informants for pickpockets, which has less to do with not wanting to be a snitch than the realities of the court system. “To get someone to talk, you have to be able to offer them something,” says Mitchell. “But [pickpockets] are more than likely going to beat the charge. So what can you give them?”

One perp was so carefree that she actually broke out in laughter during questioning. During the debriefing, Mitchell first thought the woman was having a breakdown. “You all think you did something, don’t you?” she managed to choke out between laughs.

“Well, now you are the one who’s locked up,” Mitchell replied, a bit miffed.

“Yeah, you got me for $40,000,” she said, wiping away tears. “On a good day, I can get $100,000.”

Once the woman had told the prosecutor everything she knew—which wasn’t much more than the aliases of her partners—they let her go. The woman had been part of a multistate crew that targeted elderly women—the pickpockets were from D.C., the forgers were from New York, and she was brought down from Connecticut to pose as the victims in order to access their bank accounts. But while at the bank, she got flustered, and when the teller went off to find a manager, she lost her nerve and got herself arrested.

Amid the confusion of the bust, one of her accomplices walked up to the teller, told her that he was a police detective, and said, “I believe the woman we just arrested left some things here.” The teller let him walk off with all the stolen cards and fake identification. “Gutsy,” says Mitchell, shaking his head with what can only be described as admiration.

These days, Mitchell is happy to let his peers grapple with D.C.’s criminal geniuses. Instead of prowling the trains, he spends more and more time assembling details and training officers. He even investigates fraud cases, such as counterfeit Metro cards. He hasn’t personally made a pickpocket arrest since 2004 and has just four more years before he becomes eligible for retirement. He’s recently begun work on a memoir of his work with pickpockets. “I know I’ll miss it,” he says. “It’s just in me. It’s in my blood.

“God forbid I ever fall on hard times,” says Mitchell with a playful smile. “I already have a second career.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.