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Has Technology Killed the Pickpocket?

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“Lush workers are kind of like catfish – bottom feeders on the predator food chain,” wrote late NYPD legend Jack Maple in his 1999 book The Crime Fighter. “They don’t go after victims who are merely weak, they go after victims who are unconscious. What they hunt for is the drunk who has passed out on a train or platform. The cautious ones carry no weapons and will sit next to their victim and patiently tug at the lining of the drunk’s pocket until the wallet or billfold spills out. The others simply slash the pocket open with a razor.”

Maple recalls certain lush workers he got to know as a plainclothesman in the late 1970s. They had names like Nate Nappa, Six-Finger Gibson, and Teddy Leonard, whom Maple remembered as someone who “dressed in fine suits and a nice light-brown fedora whenever he was working.”

But, the Teddy Leonards of the world are a dying breed, according to Michael Wilson of the New York Times.

“It’s like a lost art,” Lt. Kevin Callaghan of the NYPD tells Wilson. “It’s all old-school guys who cut the pocket. They die off,” without passing along their skills to a new generation of thieves. “It’s like the TV repairman.”

The Police Department estimates there are only 109 (yes, they have somehow managed to pin down the total number) lush workers left in New York City. And the disappearance of these “surgeons with a razor blade,” as Officer James Rudolph describes them, could be tied to the forward march of technology.

Writes Wilson:

Today’s subway robber is of the snatch-an-iWhatever-and-run variety that has recently driven up transit crime rates. With victims displaying $500 iPads in plain view, or passed out with a phone in their hand, why bother with a razor and a wallet?

Pickpockets are also going the way of the Diplodocus, as Pete Donohue of the New York Daily News reported last year.

Explained Donohue:

At some point, junior crooks decided picking pockets in the subways didn't pay - at least not enough for the risk involved. A pick with a record can expect two years in prison if convicted of grand larceny, one undercover said. Young guys now just want to deal drugs, old-timer pickpockets have griped to police.

Donohue noted that pickpockets “take extreme pride in their work” and view lush workers with scorn.

“Call a pick a lush worker,” he wrote, “and he'll be insulted.”

As the trade disappears here at home, all the good pickpocketing/lush-working jobs appear to have been shipped over to … where else?


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