'Ghost squad' uncovers web of police corruption

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The Independent Online
Corrupt police officers and retired detectives have been working with major drug dealers and armed robbers, netting them hundreds of thousands of pounds, the Metropolitan Police revealed yesterday. Money has been found hidden in offshore bank accounts, says Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, in what is one the biggest police scandals ever.

A secret "ghost" squad of anti-corruption officers, trusted former detectives, ex-Ministry of Defence police, and financial experts, have been covertly investigating Scotland Yard, it was disclosed yesterday.

The specialist team found that up to 250 officers, mostly senior detectives working in some of the force's most prestigious squads, were involved in major criminal activities. Serving and retired officers, up to the rank of commander, are suspected of earning tens of thousands of pounds from bribes and corruption, some by working with London's top crime gangs. Officers are also accused of salting away illegal money for retirement nest-eggs. Offshore bank accounts have been identified, some with more than pounds 100,000 deposited.

The scale of the scandal, and the existence of the secret squad, were revealed yesterday by senior sources at Scotland Yard. Its follows the biggest anti-corruption operation ever mounted earlier this week, when raids were carried out on the homes and offices of 19 serving and former officers from the Flying Squad. Thirteen officers have so far been suspended and inquiries are continuing.

Other suspects have attempted to avoid investigation by applying for early retirement - which has been declined - while others are taking sick leave.

Sir Paul Condon, Metropolitan Police Commissioner , said earlier this month that the vast profits from organised crime and narcotics meant officers could take bribes of pounds 50,000 or pounds 80,000 to "subvert an individual job" or to "recycle drugs".

The "ghost" squad, which is based at a secret location, was set up by Sir Paul in 1993 with the backing of Michael Howard, the then home secretary, to assess the scale of the problem. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has also been consulted.

Only Sir Paul and a small number of senior officers knew about the elite team because they did not know who to trust.

Many of the squad's several dozen staff were recruited from outside the police, including private surveillance and accountancy experts.

The officers identified as corrupt are "some of our best detectives", said a Yard source. He explained that they are very good at catching criminals, but while off duty could seize drugs from a dealer and then get a rival trafficker to re-sell them. Alternatively they could organise a robbery or "cream off" the money recovered during an operation.

Officers could be paid pounds 50,000 to pounds 100,000 by criminals to destroy evidence in a court case, added the source.

Networks of serving and retired police officers and villains have also been uncovered. "What shocked some people was the arrogance of these people. They believed their networks were so secure, no one could get at them," said the source.

The corrupt officers are extremely good at hiding their illicit wealth. "There are people building up nice retirement eggs," said the source. Some have offshore bank accounts of more than pounds 100,000.

The majority of the suspected corrupt officers are among the specialist units, such as the robbery and drug units, the South East Regional Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, who have access to major league villains and offences. Most are detectives with 10 to 25 years experience and include senior ranks up to detective chief inspector. The retired officers under investigation are up to commander rank.

A number of trials and convictions in which corrupt officers are involved are expected to collapse or be quashed as a result of the current inquiry.

This week's raids concentrated on the Flying Squad offices at Rigg Approach in north-east London, which now look likely to be disbanded. The Metropolitan Police are setting up measures to try and ensure corruption cannot flourish again.

Sir Paul believes that corruption has again become a problem as it was largely ignored for more than a decade following the clear-out of more than 400 officers under Sir Robert Mark in the late Seventies and early Eighties during Operation Countryman. While many more officers were involved in those investigations, the amounts of money involved were tiny compared with today's suspected hauls.