Fighting the drugs war on the doorstep

When dealers bullied their way into the home of a vulnerable man, his quiet neighbourhood was soon mired in crime and squalor. But among the fearful, one woman was prepared to fight back
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It's a tidy, redbrick, block of flats, the kind of modern, small-scale development that has become the hallmark of the modern housing association. But when the crack dealers set up shop on the second floor of this two-storey building in Reading, the residents might as well have been living in sink-estate hell.

It's a tidy, redbrick, block of flats, the kind of modern, small-scale development that has become the hallmark of the modern housing association. But when the crack dealers set up shop on the second floor of this two-storey building in Reading, the residents might as well have been living in sink-estate hell.

Debbie Nile took a while to accept the near-unbelievable fact that drug dealers had moved into an apartment on the top floor of the building, which sits, so respectably, amongst rows of attractive Victorian terraces. The first sign that something was amiss was an endless procession, all through the night, of young men and women up and down the building's internal stairs. Nile, a single mother, and her 10-year-old son were continually wakened by the buzz of the entry system. That disturbance was nothing compared to the terrifying nightly noise of angry rows and physical fights that was to come.

"At first I thought it was new tenants who had recently moved in" says Nile. In fact, crack dealers had muscled in on the home of a very vulnerable, long-standing and previously popular neighbour. The middle-aged man's flat was now part shop/part brothel and the string of visitors a mix of addicts, prostitutes and pimps. It seems that the man was as much a victim as any of the residents. Sometimes he would cry to his neighbours on the stairs insisting that all he wanted was for the dealers to leave him and his property. Occasionally his face was covered in bruises. Julie, a neighbour still too terrified to give her real name, claims she could hear him shouting, "leave me alone" in the night.

The use of cocaine is reported to be rising and in London and the South-East. Last week the Metropolitan Police revealed that cocaine seizures in the capital had rocketed 400 per cent in the last year, from a total of 96kg to 360kg. And an explosion in the use of the highly-addictive crack cocaine among prostitutes is being reported in various parts of the UK.

"The last two and a half years have seen growth in street prostitution and a simultaneous growth in the supply of crack cocaine," says Inspector Dave Griffiths, a community-policing officer in west Reading. The town's drugs and prostitution problem is believed to have started with the operation of a single brothel. Since then, police have identified 70 street prostitutes, with an average age of 22.

Nile and her neighbours, like others across the UK, were suffering the fall-out of a hard reality - that prostitutes desperate for their next crack-cocaine high work 24/7. The persecution of their vulnerable neighbour by dealers was not exactly new either. According to Griffiths, moving in on the weak is a common dealer strategy. "These people have no respect for other people at any level," says Griffiths. "If they see an opportunity to get into a flat and take ownership, that is what they will do."

Within weeks of the first nocturnal disturbance, the intercom had been ripped from the main door, and the door kicked in, presumably by customers frustrated by the time it was taking to gain entry to a building that promised their next high. "At first it was guys with smart trainers and mobile phones," says Julie. "But they were replaced eventually by real down-and-outs. One of the girls who visited was apparently 18, but she was so skinny and small I thought she was 14."

The once-pristine flat entrance turned dingy and the hall was soon heavy with the stench of urine. The top landing, leading to the crack house, had become a toilet for waiting customers. Burned matchboxes and discarded foil lay on the stairs. One day Nile returned home to find a man had been stabbed right outside her door. His blood stained deep into the carpet. Long after the police and the yellow duct tape had gone, she was still washing faded crimson from the hall walls.

Nile still marvels at the speed at which everything disintegrated around her. She smiles sheepishly when asked what she did when she realised crack dealers had annexed part of her block. "Nothing," she says. "I was terrified that if I complained to the police or the housing association, the dealers would find out it was me. I didn't know what these people were capable of." Actually she had an inkling. One of her neighbours - another single mother - had been spat upon and threatened when she challenged a man visiting the crack flat. "When she said she would to go to the police, the man said that might be the last thing she ever did," says Julie.

It was to take Sue Jackson, a determined temporary housing officer with Warden Housing Association, a concerted local police effort and new legislation designed to close crack houses down to galvanise the terrified local community to fight back. Upstairs, on the still-dingy top floor, the crack house is empty and sealed behind a thick metal barrier. The tenants still can't quite believe the turn of events or that they found a way out of the nightmare.

"By the time I heard there was a problem, the crack house had already been operating for three months," says Jackson, who had just started her six-month temporary contract with Warden when she was asked to deal with an alleged crack house. "I was asked because I have a lot of experience in tenant participation. People live very isolated lives these days, and often they don't know their neighbours. We had been getting complaints from individuals in the block of flats, and I wanted to get them together so they could see they were not alone.

"The police had become aware that the situation was serious at around the same time as we did, and they thought it would be good to try to use the new powers that were being brought in." Personal experience, as a householder, of the misery a single drug dealer can cause, may have added an edge to Jackson's professional desire to help her tenants.

Jackson, middle-aged and on crutches because of a painful arthritic condition, insists that helping the tenants fight back was just part of her job. But residents say they would not have exploited the new anti-crack house laws, introduced in January as part of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, without her encouragement. Crucially, it was Jackson's name that was given in court, to protect residents. "The case would not have happened if we had had to be named," says Nile. "We were just too scared. And also we didn't know each other well. Julie and I only got to know each other after the tenants were brought together."

Nile describes the period between October last year and March this year as "like living in a TV crime series". The six months were dominated by the crack house's brazenly open operation and a series of visits and raids by the police, by then trying to build a case that would stand up in court.

Not that there were no comically surreal moments. Julie laughs at the cheek of the addicts who not only laid siege to the building but expected residents to chip in for their drugs. "They were on the stairs trying to sell us dodgy DVD and CD players," she says. Nile also smiles when she remembers her encounter early one morning, as she was leaving for work, with an emaciated, dishevelled woman. They had a little chat, one woman apparently coming off shift, the other just starting.

But by the time Jackson approached residents about using the new legislation to get the dealers out, residents were at breaking point. Julie was already on prescription drugs for depression when the dealers invaded. She had been back to the surgery to ask her doctor for more. "Lying awake at night listening to the commotion, terrified they would break in, was not helping my nerves," she says. Nile's son was staying permanently at her parents. "It just wasn't safe for him to be here," she says. Another resident had taken to sleeping on friends' floors rather than stay in her own apartment. "People had stopped chatting to each other," says Nile. "It was just as quick as you could get in your flat and bolt the door. It's hard to explain how bad things had got. It was such a relief to be offered a way out. It was like being set free. "

"The main thing about the new legislation is that it involves civil not criminal law," says Insp Griffiths. "It allows us to act more quickly than we could before."A likely legal scenario, prior to the new powers, would have been the arrest of the tenant of an alleged crack house, a charge in a criminal court of dealing or supplying crack cocaine and, ideally, conviction and custodial sentence. Since witnesses are named in a criminal court, the failure of a case could have very unpleasant consequences for neighbours who "ratted". The criminal process was also often protracted and the crack house often carried on while the wheels of justice were slowly rotating.

The new powers from the anti-social behaviour act allow police to issue closure notices on suspected crack houses. The notice makes it illegal for anyone but the legal tenant to enter the targeted property. Officers then have 48 hours to ask a civil court for an order that will close down the premises for three months. Extensions can also be granted. Crucially, police and housing officers can give evidence on residents' behalf in court, and the standard of evidence required for a closure order is not as high as would be demanded for a criminal court conviction.

Around 100 crack houses have been closed across the country - Bristol and London have been particularly heavy users of the new powers - in the last three months. Reading police are delighted to be in the vanguard. "Our intention is to show that we have these powers and intend to use them," says Griffiths. However, he also argues that the new legislation, alone, cannot beat the lucrative prostitution and drugs racket that has blighted the local area.

"We have had to learn a lot of lessons in the past two years and, while enforcement has a big part to play in our operations, I really believe that what needs to be addressed is the addiction," says Griffiths. "I don't think anyone would sell sex on the street by choice, and I really fear for the safety of these women. We need to help get them off the drugs." According to Griffiths there is a surprising lack, locally, of the usual knee-jerk get-them-off-my-doorstep attitude towards the prostitutes. "The majority of people around here understand the complex issues around street prosti- tution," he says.

Operation Eightfold, an ongoing anti-drugs police campaign, has targeted kerb crawlers, street prostitutes and drug suppliers. But Griffiths says the problem is complex and none of its elements can be treated in isolation. What is needed is not just police but multi-agency involvement.

Housing officer Sue Jackson says she would play her part in the crack house closure all over again, including having her name used in court. "What would be the point in giving tenants' names?," she asks. "These are very scary people we are dealing with and at least I don't live in the flats." Jackson's former boss, Tim Hall, says that not every housing officer wants, or is able, to stand up in court against crack dealers. It is up to the individual worker.

To the tenants, Jackson is a hero. But she makes no secret of the fact that she found the whole experience a huge strain. "The worst part was going home at night knowing what tenants were having to put up with," she says. "There was also a lot of time and paperwork involved, and the worry that I might make some mistake that would jeopardise the court case."

Like the police and tenants, Sue is delighted by the outcome. "But, to be honest, I hope I never have to do it again, " she says. "You have to have a certain hardness to see this through and I don't think I really have it. However, I do see a lot of scope for the new legislation. I think the crack houses have operated brazenly because dealers thought no one could touch them. They thought the courts were soft. This shows that isn't the case."