Ben Twomey explores how, far from cracking down on organised drugs crime, the Government is actually facilitating it through its flawed policies.
The Home Secretary wants criminals to “feel terror”. She is going after the bad guys and is not afraid to talk tough while she does it. Only, there is a problem: the past decade, the time in which her party has been in Government, has been an organised criminal’s dream.
No matter how organised the organised criminals are, their efforts could not have come close to delivering the string of Conservative Government policies that have made their lives easier. It is unlikely that the Government meant to go ‘soft’ on organised crime, but it certainly didn’t care to check the consequences that its cuts would bring.
What’s it like to walk in the shoes of a crime boss? In my career working in police strategy, it has been important to contemplate how criminals think. Organised crime is big business. It is illegal, vicious, exploitative, violent and abusive, but nonetheless driven by profit and operates as a business. Like any business, there are things that the bosses want to get right to make money: they want a popular product, low levels of risk, smooth recruitment, growing capital and a route to expansion.
Most businesses, criminal or otherwise, start with some sort of product or service that has a potential customer base.
Every entrepreneur’s dream is to find a product that customers are addicted to. Heroin and crack cocaine were once described to me by a senior police officer as the “bread and butter” of the vast majority of organised crime groups.
The Government discovered in its own 2014 report that this product was in demand regardless of whether laws prohibited it or police officers chased it. With no change in approach since, the primary product of organised crime keeps on practically selling itself.
There is, however, one thing that threatens the selling of an addictive product: treatment. When people are treated for their addiction, demand for that product drops. For decades, organised criminals have had to find ways to lure people away from addiction recovery services. Sometimes they would offer free drugs, sometimes they would use violence or intimidation, and sometimes they would even position their dealers directly outside recovery meetings. Crime bosses dreamed of the boost to business they would receive if addiction recovery services didn’t exist.
In 2010, the Conservative Government started to make the crime bosses’ dreams a reality, with funding cuts, leading to the reduction of addiction recovery services nationwide. Trapped in their addiction and without support, the customer base for the crime bosses has stayed loyal to their product.
With a popular product in place, a crime boss may then want to look at reducing the risks attached to selling it. The criminals at the top of the tree have always been pretty good at not getting caught.
Even those huge multi-million-pound police raids rarely get near the guy who is near the guy at the top, let alone the real crime boss. In the past 10 years, these criminals got lucky when it came to reduced risks.
With more than 21,000 fewer police on our streets and only 7% of all crimes resulting in a prosecution, Government cuts have devastated the whole criminal justice system and left organised criminals sleeping easy.
With the customers ready and the risk down, it is time to recruit. Unscrupulous employers everywhere lean towards a cheap and expendable workforce that will not or cannot unionise. The world of organised crime takes this to extremes.
The bottom of the crime ladder is rarely made up of criminals at all, with victims taken advantage of and made to carry out the roles with the biggest risk of getting caught. Exploited kids are made to deal drugs, groomed or threatened by slightly older dealers who are not much further up the chain than them. These children are being used more and more often, and becoming more and more accessible to the criminals.
Again, Government cuts have done a lot of the work for the crime bosses. Take three examples directly connected to child criminal exploitation.
First, youth services have been cut by nearly two-thirds, giving some young people nothing positive to do in the evenings that will keep them off the streets. Second, because there is no behaviour support left in many schools and teachers do not have time to pick up the pieces, school exclusions surge. This is directly linked to gang violence. Finally, children in care – many of whom have suffered unimaginable traumas already – are sent in vast numbers to live miles away from their home county because there are not enough homes to take them. They become “sitting ducks” for ‘county lines’ exploitation, where gangs send them with drugs from the cities to sell in rural towns.
The recruitment drive for organised crime is booming thanks to the fallout of Government policy decisions.
The new workforce then sets about increasing profits. The Proceeds of Crime Act, which gives police the chance to seize money and assets from criminals, is seriously underused.
Government cuts that hit police officers on the street were even less kind to officers and staff working in specialist, desk-based roles such as those that targeted organised criminals’ finances. In the West Midlands, after years of underfunding, we managed to make the case to recruit former bank workers to seize profits from drugs gangs. Unfortunately, teams like this are far from the norm.
With all of the above going so well, no wonder organised criminals are now expanding their empires across county lines or into online markets where the overstretched, underfunded police cannot keep up.
In a fight for drug dealing territory, urban gangs are pitching their armies of vulnerable and expendable teenagers against those of gangs in towns and rural areas. Knife crime is soaring and people are dying, but the organised criminal empire keeps growing.
Organised criminals are winning. Their businesses are thriving in almost every way imaginable. Thinking like a crime boss shows us just how much the odds have been tipped in their favour.
Serious action is necessary to reduce the drugs market, increase arrests and prosecutions, deny access to child recruits, target profits and stifle expansion. We must confront organised criminals at every turn. But, unless the Government rethinks its entire approach to serious crime, our communities will continue to suffer while the real criminals keep getting away with it.
Ben Twomey is standing as the Labour Party’s Police and Crime Commissioner candidate for Warwickshire in the May 2020 election.