Detective Inspector Andrew Rennison, head of the Chinese intelligence unit within the Metropolitan Police, described four Triad societies which operate throughout the country, with strongholds in London, Southampton, Manchester, Northampton and Glasgow. He estimated that there were up to 200 core Triads, and predicted that the number of gang members would quickly rise if there is a large influx of people from Hong Kong when China takes over the colony in 1997.
However, a recent trend noted by his team was the recruitment of non- Chinese teenagers into the Triad movement. In a recent case, 20 members of a gang in Croydon, south London, aged from 13 to 15, were recruited by Triads through Chinese youngsters.
The teenagers, both black and white, had been used by the Triad in crimes, mainly centred in London's Chinatown.
"The teenagers enjoy the danger and are attracted by the gang's violent image," said DI Rennison.
Vietnamese and Malaysian young men from Britain were also being targeted. The British Triads, which have loose links with Hong Kong gangs, are involved in a number of illegal activities within the country's 200,000 Chinese community, including gambling, vice, and illegal immigration and passport fraud. Protection rackets, loan sharking, credit-card fraud, counterfeiting and drugs also form a major part of the gangs' activities.
"We know who the leaders are, and the main players, but. . . witnesses are very difficult to come by and are usually frightened," said DI Rennison. In one case a witness was attacked and left for dead by a gang wielding meat cleavers.
Speaking at the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales' annual conference at Market Bosworth, Warwickshire, the Detective Inspector said the Triads encouraged their image of being extremely violent and organised to help them terrorise their own communities. However, they were often chaotic and loosely knit.
DI Rennison did not believe there would be a massive surge of new Triads coming to the UK after Hong Kong goes back to the Chinese. "Hong Kong is too big a gold mine to leave," he said. "The real threat comes from the domestic Triads."
n The police conference also heard that many forces now have sub- standard facilities for firearms training. Only a third of the police forces in England and Wales have their own outdoor ranges and have to rely on Ministry of Defence facilities, which are often unsuitable.
Superintendent Mike Waldren, head of the Metropolitan Police firearms unit, said: "In some cases the conditions the instructors have to work under are difficult to say the least. One force has an outdoor range overgrown with trees and bushes.
"With the increase in the peace dividend, the MoD is shedding assets - that includes ranges. Range availability will reduce and this is a fact."
The importance of after-care for officers involved in shooting incidents was also stressed by DI Rennison. As a possible consequence of ignoring the problem, he pointed to a recent out-of-court settlement of pounds 250,000, paid by the MoD to a soldier who brought a civil action against the Army for failing to provide support in dealing with trauma after the Falklands war.