Drug gangs targeted in crime crackdown

Police chief's agenda: Narcotics trade seen as vital as officers lay plans to tackle growing threat from organised underworld
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Crime Correspondent

Tackling organised criminals and drug-traffickers will be top priorities for police during the coming year, the new president of the Association of Chief Police Officers disclosed yesterday.

James Sharples, 51, who takes up his post on 12 October, also revealed in an interview with the Independent that police will be arguing the case for further changes to the criminal justice system. In addition, he highlighted the need for better training and supervision in the use of informers.

Mr Sharples, the Chief Constable of Merseyside, takes over at a time when senior police officers seem to have the sympathy and support of both Tory and Labour politicians who are trying to curry favour in their attempts to establish credentials as the party of law and order.

Nevertheless, senior officers believe Mr Sharples, whom colleagues describe as astute and deceptively tough, will need all his skills of negotiation if the police are to continue to set the agenda, not least because of the current attempts by the security service to secure a role in traditional crime-fighting.

Mr Sharples admits he is becoming an endangered species - a chief constable without a degree - and is the only senior officer in the Merseyside force who is not a graduate.

His parents worked in a cotton factory near Preston. "If you come from humble origins you know that life is not all sweetness and light," he said. "All police officers recognise there's a wide number of causes of crime - unemployment and idle hands must be one of them. Family breakdown and lack of discipline all have a role as well."

He left school at the age of 16 and joined the Merchant Navy. At 20, he became a police officer, and gradually moved through the ranks in various forces, including Avon and Somerset, where he ran the six-year inquiry into the original police investigation of the 1974 pub bombings that led to the wrongful imprisonment of the Guildford Four.

He joined Merseyside in 1988 and was appointed Chief Constable the following year. While in Liverpool he had to deal with the furore caused by the sex discrimination case involving Alison Halford, a former assistant chief constable, who eventually dropped her claims after two years.

While with Acpo, he has examined issues such as terrorism, organised crime and firearms. He believes one of the biggest changes of his presidential year will be the police approach to tackling organised crime. Mr Sharples said: "Organised crime, which is often linked with the drug trade, will be the focus of our attention in the next few years. It really has to be tackled and grasped. Their sophistication is increasing all the time." Several new initiatives are expected.

He believes more needs to be done in altering the criminal justice system, which he and other chief constables feel is still too skewed towards helping criminals. The police will be pressing for changes in areas such as limiting the disclosure of the prosecution evidence, permitting hearsay evidence, and allowing juries to know more about a defendant's previous convictions.

On the question of police informers, the use of which was criticised last week by a university study for being at times a shambles and containing possibly unlawful practices, he said: "We need to get more experience and ensure officers follow the set guidelines. We still have a lot to learn and we need better training and supervision in some areas."

He believes the issue of firearms and greater protection for officers, including the introduction of CS sprays, has nearly been resolved. "I believe we will be issued with the sprays in the near future," he said. "We will be pushing this issue with vigour." He said at present there was no justification for universal carrying of firearms.

Senior police officers believe Mr Sharples has a challenging year ahead of him. But as one colleague warned: "It would be a big mistake to underestimate him, just because he's a nice bloke and seems laid-back. No one gets to his position without being tough."