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With a police helicopter hovering overhead and a specialist dog team on the prowl, locals were convinced they were witnessing a major manhunt.
But a few minutes later the operation was stood down after officers caught their quarry - not a dangerous escaped prisoner or a terror suspect, but two naughty boys who had pinched some plastic goalposts.
And the result? The two 16-year-olds were simply given a ticking off because of their ages and lack of previous offences.
Essex Police were yesterday criticised for scoring an own goal as locals accused them of a massive overreaction when they could have used the resources to catch serious criminals.
Andy Wright, head of Rayne Primary School near Braintree, from where the goalposts were taken, said he was stunned the £700-an-hour helicopter had been deployed.
“I was very surprised when the caretaker told me that the police helicopter had been sent out,” he said. “Of course, we do not want any of our equipment to be stolen as it belongs to the children. But I really have no idea how this incident came to be escalated.
“I think the boys came on to the school grounds during the evening and just picked up a set of plastic goalposts that were on the grass.”
A parent, whose daughter goes to the school, said: “I saw the helicopter and thought there must have been something major happening nearby. So when I found out what it was for I couldn’t believe it. It’s a massive overreaction, and parents I have spoken to feel the same way.’
The operation began last Thursday evening when an off-duty police officer spotted two teenagers acting suspiciously in the grounds of the village school.
Minutes later the force’s 145mph helicopter, which has a thermal- imaging camera, was clattering through the skies of Rayne while the dog team was scouring the ground.
The boys were caught in nearby woodland after a few minutes and were spoken to before being released. They were not interviewed at a police station. The goalposts, which are worth less than £100, were recovered and returned to the school.
Former Essex Police chief superintendent Mick Thwaites, who is running for the role of the county’s police commissioner, said: “It was potentially an own goal to send up the helicopter for this incident.
“The helicopter is a fantastic resource but it should be up there for major incidents such as firearms crime, police pursuits - a whole raft of things where air support is absolutely fantastic.”
Essex Police said the helicopter had “not been up for very long”. A spokesman said: “Due to the realistic prospect of catching the people responsible for the theft, resources - including the dog unit and helicopter - were sent to the scene to assist with the search. They were not being deployed to any emergency at the time.
“The resources were required because the two suspects had made their way into a wooded area.
“Essex Police is pleased that the two youngsters responsible were apprehended, given reprimands and strong words of advice.”
The force is closing stations across the county as it cuts its budget by 20 percent. The force saw a small rise in crime last year to 105 077 reported incidents, while the number solved fell nearly 3 per cent to 26.7 percent.
In 2010 police in neighbouring Hertfordshire were criticised when they sent out a helicopter to catch a shoplifter who stole meat from Tesco. - Daily Mail