Over the course of the last twelve months, there has been increased focus on the role of policing drugs in the UK. TV presenter and writer Alex Stewart spent six years working on the front line combating drug related crime in London as a Metropolitan Police Officer. Here he provides a genuinely eye-opening insight into the capricious nature of policing the illicit drug market in the capital.
I joined the Metropolitan Police Service in August 2009 and moved to Camden borough’s main station Holborn having completed my training. After working on response team for around a year, I started to move towards proactive policing, often in plainclothes.
Camden is a high volume borough, with lots going on and a huge transient population; the predominant crimes are acquisitive or violence linked to the night-time economy, and, of course, drugs. I think many people from out of London (as I was when I joined) associate Camden with drugs, especially the Camden Town lock area. It quickly became apparent that Camden had an issue with drugs, from the open-air markets in cannabis and ‘party’ drugs around Camden Town, to a proliferation of crack and heroin dealers in the W1 and WC1 areas. There were a number of street gangs but these were generally not too well organised or especially violent, at least not compared to the larger, more organised gangs from south London or Haringey or Brent; a family based in Kentish Town controlled a reasonable slice of the class A market in the centre of the borough, but they were an old-school group, well-embedded in the community, who generally kept a low profile. In short, the drugs picture in Camden when I joined was pretty diffuse, confused, and complex, with lots of small operators claiming little sectors of territory or customer base; it was easier to target an area than a gang, for example, and warrants that hit stash houses were pretty inconsequential as a means of disruption because it would, at best, put one or two people out of action for a short period.
I didn’t start off wanting to work predominantly on drugs. For me, the interest always lay in gathering and processing intelligence, putting together a picture from disparate bits of information and trying to uncover links.
My training in research academia helped, as did an ability to blend in and feel comfortable with pretty much anyone; soon, I was spending a lot of time out and about, sometimes on my own, looking to turn up information, especially by arresting low-level dealers for supply or offering to supply and then building a rapport with them. Drugs seemed like the most fertile area for this sort of approach; I was never driven by a zealous sense that drugs were bad or engaged myself on some sort of crusade to clean up Camden. I was, however, increasingly aware that drugs, especially class A, had serious, negative impact on geographical areas and on people’s lives. Many of the subjects I spoke to, especially users but also some of the lower level dealers, were trapped in a spiral of petty crime, addiction, and the criminal justice system. It was an ineluctable trap: they suffered with addiction, which led to increasing levels of demand, which necessitated theft in various forms to support, which led to arrests, fines, or imprisonment, none of which solved their problems; in many instances, indeed, it just seemed to make it worse. I heard the same stories again and again. And I saw the same faces drifting through custody and into the court system, or hunkered down in blankets around Tottenham Court Road or Seven Dials. It felt like whatever we were doing, it wasn’t working, especially for these people, the addicts who were, to a greater or lesser degree, also victims.
I had started working on a tasking unit on the south of the Borough under the stewardship of a sergeant called Matt. Matt’s background was in proactive, sharp-end street policing. He was a great supervisor to work for, always encouraging us to come up with ideas for operations, but someone who felt like a copper’s place was out there, making people safer, not stuck behind a desk. We started to put together jobs that resulted in warrants, one particularly successful where the subjects were exploiting a vulnerable old man and supplying large quantities of crack and heroin from a base near the British Museum. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the word from above Matt was always that jobs should be quick and clean. They didn’t want long periods of observation or intelligence gathering; they wanted arrests. Arrests were good for figures, and there was a constant pressure to justify the team’s existence, despite its good work. Operations were also often driven by the perception that something needed to be done: we ran one, which was longer-term and used an observation post, to target dealers around Seven Dials and St. Giles, but only because a few local councillors had complained about the levels of crime and anti-social behaviour in the area. Our team had consistently highlighted the problem, but it was only once the BBC took a camera crew down and walked around the area, that Matt was allowed to put an operation together. The leadership’s approach was often knee-jerk in this way, none more so than Operation Trafalgar, which was designed to ‘clean up’ Soho before the Olympics. The situation on the ground in Soho had been the same for ages, but it was only when there was a cosmetic desire to change for the benefit of tourists and the media around London 2012 that anything was done.
This was hugely frustrating, and coloured a lot of the work we did. For a start, it always seemed focussed on targeting users on the street, not dealers who worked further up the chain. The message was often, “Push it over to Westminster”, ‘it’ being the overt use of drugs or the presence of ‘unsightly’ addicts; across the borough border, it ceased to be our problem or our mess. This solves nothing: it doesn’t help those trapped in the addiction/criminality spiral, it doesn’t tackle any serious criminality, and it merely shifts the issue on to another set of residents who suffer the same problems the first set did.
That’s not to say that there weren’t good outcomes at times. Operation Rense, an undercover deployment I worked on as part of the support and intelligence cell, having been seconded from Camden to Westminster, jailed 43 dealers of mostly crack and heroin who were operating in Soho. There was also a follow-up that targeted stolen goods trading in the area. Rense was a good operation, well run by specialist detectives from Westminster, thoughtfully planned and executed, and targeting the right people, people who exploited addiction and carried out their business with violence, intimidation, and coercion. But its founding principle, though not one shared by Phil, the DS who ran it, or any of us that worked on it, was cosmetic: make Soho look prettier for London 2012 or it will be an embarrassment. But, as ever, when Rense finished, the dealers returned, new faces, but the same old trade. There was no consistency in approach and, as retired officers like Neil Woods have pointed out, once an operation has succeeded in a given area, the criminals are now wise to police tactics and the police must evolve.
While Rense, and a few of the operations run by Matt and my team, proved that police officers could mount effective jobs against drug dealers or drugs use, too often I found that there was no strategic thinking or desire to tackle a problem thoroughly. Operations were curtailed when they didn’t get the early arrest. Matt and our team put together a superb operation on a male dealing in the Bloomsbury area, during which we gathered photographic evidence and a great intelligence picture. We couldn’t run the arrest phase properly because after he had failed to turn up once, we were not allowed to run the risk of the team being occupied for one more night on something that might not yield an arrest again. We were only allowed to target that subject in the first place because of tenuous CCTV evidence linking him to a burglary; for the purposes of convincing management, we were going after a burglary suspect, not a drugs one.
Intelligence was ignored because it was considered too resource intensive for the pay-off (that is to say, only one or two countable ‘figures’ at the end), even if the wider ramifications of success would have been significant.
I spend weeks working on identifying a man running a heroin supply in the W1 area, piecing together source information and more general intelligence, crime reports, phone information, and so on, finally getting a name for someone who to that point had only been known by his street name. A source unit from another borough who believed they could assist me on the basis of information I had put onto the system contacted me. This was a subject who had been carrying out his trade with relative impunity for what seemed like years, and we were on the trail of him for the first time. And then I was told not to pursue it, apart from one aborted effort to identify him in person, because it was tying up too much of my time without a payoff. So, frustrated, I showed how non-residential burglary affected the area he sold in, likely because his buyers were committing crimes there to fund their habit; I was told the link wasn’t clear enough and to drop it.
This was the fate of so many intelligent, well-planned drugs operations, or putative ones that might effectively target lower middle market dealers, rather than users. As far as targeting users was concerned, though, management (generally) loved it: I do recall being told once to arrest fewer people in Camden Town for drugs offences as it was making the area look like a drugs hotspot and the council were unimpressed; generally, though, quick and simple arrests for possession were great as far as management were concerned because they made it look like we were doing something and because arrests are countable. Whether it was a passive drugs dog operation at Camden Town tube, or the directive to push class A addicts across to Westminster, these jobs affected those who needn’t have been criminalised at all, or merely worsened their already difficult situation, without ever addressing root causes or making the effort to push higher up the food chain.
Obviously, this piece has so far been anecdotal, my personal experiences of policing drugs in London between 2009 and 2014. I decided, then, to speak with some of my former colleagues, to see if things had changed and what views they held on the subject.
I polled 100 people I used to work with, who represent a good cross-section both of policing roles and, I think, opinions; of those, 64 responded to my survey, and a few more agreed to speak in greater detail on condition of anonymity. The results paint an instructive picture for those who think the war on drugs is anything other than futile and misdirected.
Of those polled, 88% thought the war on drugs was not working; 3% thought it was, and 9% were not sure. Reasons ranged from the sense that “the criminalisation of drugs helps no one and only leads to a cycle of social alienation”, to undue leniency by the courts, management giving insufficient priority to drugs policing, and the sheer scope of the problem; as one former colleague put it succinctly, “There are too many users and dealers for the police to deal with them effectively, and no sooner has one dealer been taken out, another springs up in their place.” The prioritisation of drugs policing by management came in for particularly heavy criticism. When asked whether they felt there was a logical, coherent strategy behind Met-wide or Borough-based drugs policing, 89% said no, with only 6% believing that there was. The Met is heavily responsive to priorities, either those set by the Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime (MOPAC), or by ward panels (despite the winding down to almost nothing of Safer Neighbourhood Teams and their replacement by larger, supposedly more flexible Local Policing Teams that, in actuality, just spend most of their time picking up the slack left by over-worked, under-staffed Response Teams); when asked whether drugs was a stated priority in their ward or on their Borough, 59% answered no, with 14% saying yes and, perhaps most instructively, 27% saying that priorities changed so often they didn’t actually know.
When asked what police priorities should be, ‘drugs’ was a popular response. Recipients could pick more than one answer and 33% selected drugs, but that came behind terrorism (66%), crime prevention and anti-gang initiatives (both 56%), burglary (53%), night-time economy issues like violence and licensing, and overall victim care (41%). One officer stated, “I wouldn’t neglect any of these”, which is, of course, part of the issue; there are only so many officers and so much time to go around, and the police cannot be everywhere and across everything when their resources and numbers are stretched thinner than ever. One officer said, “Drugs are the fuel for most crime, whether it’s users trying to fund a habit or dealers fighting over areas or money owed. If resources were available, we would certainly be able to combat some of the violent crime offences.” It’s hard to argue with this, because criminality causes more criminality, especially once someone has been sucked into the criminal justice system but, again, it seems clear that officers do not believe that management are in favour of this sort of longer-term approach and, in the end, it’s still the end user who is most easily targeted when a more short-sighted approach is taken.
It’s also clear that this approach, of not prioritising drugs at a leadership level, has a knock-on effect.
When asked, “What proportion of your time is spent tackling drugs specifically, or taking action that might prevent drug offending (i.e. stop searches, obtaining warrants, etc.)?” 66% of respondents said less than 10%, and 17% between 10% and 30%; to put it another way, 53 of 64 respondents spend between none and 30% of their time tackling drugs offences directly. Much of these efforts will be haphazard, too; one officer stated that policing is now reactive, not proactive, anyway, a result of having too few officers to patrol effectively that requires most officers simply to answer calls. That is part of a wider systemic issue with the way London is policed, but has a direct knock-on effect to how drugs are policed. It’s no surprise, then, that when asked whether they had confidence in the Met’s leadership where drugs policing is concerned, 95% of officers said no. As one officer told me, “There is simply no coherent effort and there’s a lack of enthusiasm from senior management to acknowledge the issue at local level.”
Given that officers clearly feel, as I did when I was policing, that there is no real strategy to tackle drugs and little appetite for the issue at a senior level even given its knock-on effects on acquisitive crime and anti-social behaviour, it is also not surprising that many officers feel that drugs should be decriminalised and regulated. This would allow officers to concentrate their efforts on those doing most harm, and also allow those trapped in the criminal addictive spiral a way out. While 49% of officers believe that no drugs should be decriminalised at all, 22% believe cannabis should be, 3% believe cannabis and ‘party drugs’ like MDMA should be, 14% believe all drugs should be, and 11% do not have a strong opinion either way. The slim majority of serving police officers I polled therefore either do not feel strongly about the decriminalisation of drugs or actively believe they should be decriminalised, from only cannabis all the way up to drugs like crack and heroin. Arguments put forward by some of those officers include the following: “Over criminalising low-level drugs has been an abject failure. Reallocate resources into treatment and education”; “Making drugs legal would allow greater governmental control, allowing prescription use with controlled, safe administration. Legislation would take away the need for crime-funded addiction. It would allow addicts to be treated as such and given greater opportunity to control their addiction or receive treatment”; and “The resources spent dealing with it are disproportionate to the outcomes.” Many officers also recognised that medical intervention or prescription, safe rooms for the consumption of injected drugs, and treating drugs as a public health issue not a criminal one would allow for greater targeting of police resources at more important areas and help those caught in the spiral. Many officers also told me they thought alcohol did far more social harm than drugs too.
In terms of the effectiveness of drugs policing, it’s clear that many officers see that the war on drugs is failing.
A lack of resources (30%), a focus on users rather than dealers (28%), and a focus on other areas of policing (22%) are all cited as reasons why, but it’s also apparent that many feel like the lack of a coherent approach exacerbates these issues. The “vast resources consumed by taking addicts to court for fines they can’t pay” are also seen as a waste; as one officer put it, “If someone is arrested in this situation, I’d like to see this money being spent on compulsory treatment orders for the drug addict, who should be treated as a victim — not a criminal — as I feel that this is a public health issue which needs to be addressed.” Indeed, the effects of criminalisation in general also cause some officers concern. As the same officer told me:
“I joined the Police to deal with violent, anti-social and dishonest people…Drugs arrests can totally wreck the lives of otherwise decent, law-abiding people and I think that it is a moral disgrace that a person can be arrested for possessing (for example) some psychedelic mushrooms or some marijuana. I think that police should ignore drug use as long as there are no aggravating factors. I’d like to know exactly what harm a group of people are doing if they smoke marijuana or take LSD in their own home? If these things were legal, there would be no criminal element whatsoever. It’s madness.”
The picture, then, is bleak in terms of how the very people who are supposed to uphold our drugs laws see them and the actions they are taking on a day-to-day basis. A lack of resources, a lack of leadership, and a lack of strategy are hampering any meaningful effort to tackle drugs. Many officers see drugs as a public health issue that suffers from being treated as a criminal one, or feel that users are disproportionately targeted rather than dealers. Many see the criminal justice system as costly and unwieldy, serving no-one’s interests in the long run and trapping users in a cycle of drugs and criminality that does nothing to address core problems. Many also feel that while drugs policing is important, it is less important than a host of other areas to which limited resources should be directed in the first instance. And, lastly, only half of officers polled believe with certainty that all drugs should be illegal.
It might surprise readers to learn that police officers have such liberal, tolerant views of the drugs issue, but it shouldn’t be. Officers are exposed the realities of the ‘war on drugs’ on a daily basis, the criminalised addicts, the morass of the criminal justice system, the increased sophistication and ruthlessness of dealers, and the continuing failure to address the issue properly. The results of my survey and conversations chimed with my own thinking on the subject and are part of a wider trend in law enforcement, as evidenced by writers like Neil Woods or bodies like LEAP, to recognise that current approaches are not working. I don’t think, and the majority of those I spoke to don’t either, that the police should down tools and not look at drugs ever again, but it is abundantly clear that the way things are now is failing, failing society, failing addicts, and failing the police. Something needs to change, because we’ve lost the war.
Alex Stewart is a former serving police officer with the Metropolitan Police Service with extensive experience of the war on drugs. He is now a journalist and television presenter. Tweets @AFHStewart