[First posted 29/3; updated and moved to the top 6/4. You'll see why.]
Back here, at the time of the Danish embassy protests, I wrote about ‘high’ and ‘low’ policing:
‘low policing’ [is] the unending and mundane job of maintaining social order and responding to breaches of the criminal law. ‘High policing’, by contrast, is policing with an agenda and a long-term perspective: the use of police methods and resources to achieve coherent political ends.
‘low policing’ is at best framed by, and at worst permeated with, the political calculations of ‘high policing’. ‘Low policing’ arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; ‘high policing’ turns them into informers and lets them go. ‘Low policing’ lets orderly demonstrations proceed unhindered and breaks up disorderly protests; ‘high policing’ lets protest events continue or not according to their longer-term political significance.
The Baybasin Cartel, a notorious Kurdish gang, is estimated by police to have controlled up to 90% of the heroin which entered the country after its leading members settled in the home counties in the mid-1990s. Gang members also became involved in protection rackets and extortion in the UK, and were linked to a series of turf disputes which resulted in up to 25 murders. On one occasion, Baybasin mobsters were involved in a shoot-out across a busy shopping street in north London on a Saturday afternoon.The gang was already notorious among law enforcement agencies across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia when its members were allowed to move from Turkey to London, allegedly after their leader, Huseyin Baybasin, agreed to tell Customs investigators what he knew about the involvement of senior Turkish politicians and officials in the international heroin trade.
Baybasin was encouraged by Customs to come to the UK and arrived via Gibraltar in either late 1994 or early 1995. He first met Customs officers in a hotel near Tower Bridge, London. … many of Baybasin’s associates were subsequently able to settle in the UK because Customs & Excise accepted that they would be in danger in Turkey once he had been recruited as an informer. They are thought to have entered the country illegally, using forged Dutch passports, and no attempt was made to regularise their immigration status for several years.
Note that there’s no suggestion of corruption: Customs & Excise turned a collective blind eye to our Kurdish Sopranos as a matter of policy, for the sake of longer-term intelligence-gathering. High policing trumps low, in rather a big way.
This is quite a timely case; as from April 1st, drug gangs won’t be the responsibility of Customs & Excise (or HM Revenue and Customs, as it now is). The National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service are merging, together with HMRC’s drug enforcement people and the Home Office’s people-trafficking specialists: they’re all going to be working in a single organisation, the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Under the SOCA regime it will all be different, Charles Clarke has suggested:
A new nationwide police force which begins operations on Monday will be able to prevent international drug traffickers settling in the UK, the home secretary, Charles Clarke, predicted yesterday. He expressed his confidence in the Serious Organised Crime Agency – dubbed Britain’s FBI – after the Guardian disclosed that leading members of a notorious crime gang had settled in the home counties after striking a deal with Customs & Excise.
But ‘suggested’ is the operative word. After all, Customs & Excise was perfectly able to prevent the Baybasin group establishing itself over here; it just chose not to, prioritising ‘high policing’ considerations. There’s no obvious reason why we should expect SOCA to take a different view in a comparable situation. Indeed, considering that the new agency will incorporate HMRC’s existing drug enforcers – and will, if anything, tend to take an even higher-level view of ‘serious organised crime’ than HMRC does now – there are good reasons to expect that SOCA will represent high policing as usual.
Rather than acknowledge this (currently unpalatable) possibility, Clarke relied on his listeners assuming that a bigger and better police agency would mean more and better low policing, relying ultimately on the common-sense view that low policing is what the police are there for. Quoting myself again:
one of the most popular images of police work has it that there is only ‘low policing’: the law is above politics, and it’s the police’s job to maintain social order, not to maintain any particular social order.
Or perhaps I should have said, “one of the most popular myths about police work”.
Update The following story appeared in yesterday’s Guardian, straplined ‘How SOCA will work’.
Crime-busting ideas imported from the USThose behind Soca don’t like being called the British FBI but its creation does mark the introduction of some US-style ideas of justice into the British legal system. For the Serious and Organised Crime Agency isn’t just about bringing together 4,200 police, customs, immigration and MI5 officers into a more sophisticated and integrated body to tackle the £20bn-a-year trade in organised crime. They will also have new powers at their disposal. The most important stems directly from the American experience in tackling the mafia and major drug gangs – the formal introduction of plea bargaining and a system of “supergrasses” into the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
Soca has to persuade the public that not only footsoldiers, such as street dealers, but also middle-ranking organised crime figures involved in people trafficking and heroin smuggling should be free to walk the streets because their evidence has put away more significant crime figures. Harm reduction, as it is called, is at the centre of Soca’s strategy – a fundamental shift in tactics from arresting every drug dealer or seizing every shipment. It is regarded as more important to break up criminal networks than to secure a short-term publicity coup by making quick arrests.
‘Low policing’ arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; ‘high policing’ turns them into informers and lets them go – and SOCA means more high policing rather than less, making future Baybasin cases more likely rather than less so.
A new nationwide police force which begins operations on Monday will be able to prevent international drug traffickers settling in the UK, the home secretary, Charles Clarke, predicted yesterday.