Britain's Drugs Crisis: The Police: Alarm at rise in drug-related violent crime

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The Independent Online
POLICE forces have become alarmed at the spread of drug-related violent crime, fuelled by easy access to firearms and the high profits from drug dealing.

The Metropolitan Police's drug- related violence intelligence unit, set up five months ago, has identified 12 drug-related murders and 28 attempted murders in the capital over the last 14 months.

Detective Chief Superintendent Roy Clark, the unit's head, said: 'The whole drugs trade is full of paranoia, full of treachery and instability. Many dealers are users themselves and drugs only enhance that paranoia and instability.

'We're dealing with people that are already three-quarters of the way to being violent. They live in dread fear of being ripped off. The trade is being driven by a paranoia, such that violence has become the norm in policing their own criminal environment.'

Violence and intimidation have always been used by dealers to protect and enforce territories, Det Ch Supt Clark said. But where fists and knives once settled disputes, the ready availability of firearms from stockpiles in the Eastern bloc meant that guns now ruled.

He also said that influenced by Jamaican Yardie gangs, who have moved in on sections of the crack trade, British dealers were now carrying guns as a fashion accessory. 'It's about fear. With fear you get respect. Using guns has become part of the credibility-enhancing behaviour with those seeking to ascend the scale.'

Some drug-related violence can be attributed to addicts going to more extreme lengths to steal to pay for their habit. They may no longer bother if someone is in the house they are about to rob. 'It's the 'I want, I need, I'm having' mentality,' Detective Chief Inspector Richard Blakeley, head of West Yorkshire Police drugs squad, said.

More serious is violence between dealers, anxious to carve out and preserve profitable territories. When supplies run short, one dealer may steal another's stash. 'Taxing', whereby an operator pays a percentage of his takings to another for the right to deal on a patch, is increasing. But so are younger dealers' frustration with the system.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Orr, head of the drugs squad in Strathclyde, where 1,200 firearms have been seized in the last two years, said his officers routinely stumble across guns on raids. 'Dealers all have their own territories and they take out anyone who muscles in. They don't have a gentlemen's agreement, each is in competition with the other. If we put one away, there are always two waiting to fight it out.'

Police research suggests that between one-third and a half of all recorded crime is drug related, but no equivalent figures exist for violent crime. Forces find it difficult to establish for certain whether incidents are drug related, while many attacks go unreported. A dealer beaten for reneging on a payment would be unlikely complain to the police, Det Supt Orr said.

In West Yorkshire, firearms offences have more than trebled over the last five years. Det Ch Insp Blakeley said: 'It's got to be (drug- related). It's like watching an epidemic with the drugs itself. Three years ago Ecstasy came on the scene and went up and up. Now we're finding the same with guns.'

On Merseyside, police have seized more than 2,000 firearms in the same period, including a major cache in February. Detective Chief Superintendent Ray Walker, head of Merseyside CID central services, believes that violence went 'hand in glove' with the drugs trade. 'The gun aspect is very difficult because the market for drugs is so lucrative, that it's worth shooting people,' he said.

Police are also worried that the cocaine derivative 'crack', which although available in 32 out of 56 police areas, is still relatively new to Britain. Its potency makes it the most closely associated with paranoia and violence.

Several users who committed armed robberies in Oxford last summer pleaded crack addiction in mitigation. The murder of one crack dealer and the attempted murder of another in Coventry last October, led West Midlands Police to launch Operation Rostand, which culminated in the seizure of firearms, machetes and a speargun.

As the drugs trade grows, fears for safety have widened. Last October, Constable Patrick Dunne, a community policeman, died after strolling into the middle of shoot- out between dealers in south London. A month earlier, John 'Benji' Stanley, 14, was gunned down while at a takeaway shop in Moss Side, Manchester. Ambulancemen in Manchester are currently trying out flak jackets. Accident and Emergency departments in inner cities are reporting increases in the number of people with gunshot wounds, which they feel are drug related.

Last December, two men were shot outside the casualty department at St James's University Hospital, Leeds. Dr Robin Illingworth, the clinical director, wonders how long it will be before there is a shooting inside the hospital.

Dr Rosemary Morton, casualty consultant at the Manchester Royal Infirmary which serves Moss Side, said: 'It is worrying knowing the patient sitting in the waiting room has got a lethal weapon on them. We have to rely on people believing that we're there to help them.'

Although 'worrying indications' remain, most observers believe that Britain is a long way from levels of drug-related violence in the United States - currently believed to be about 50 per cent. Det Ch Supt Clark believes that, in London at least, his intelligence unit has identified violence as a separate issue sufficiently early to curtail it.

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