When the name of the crime- busting game is threat assessment - as it was last week at a conference on organised crime hosted by the National Criminal Intelligence Service - detectives have to speculate. But how much of their concern is scaremongering, and to what extent does it address the public's fear of crime? How much should elderly ladies worry about Yardies, Triads or Chechens snatching their handbags.
'If we are going to discuss these matters in public, we open ourselves to the suggestion that we are creating unnecesessary alarm. It's the price we have to pay,' said Detective Inspector Graham Saltmarsh, head of the NCIS's organised crime desk and one of the conference hosts.
It was wrong, he argued, to see successive warnings about Russian gangs and Hell's Angels as inconsistent. The Russian warning came from a Scotland Yard officer who said that the gangs had access to large quantities of cheap weapons which could, in theory, find their way to Britain's inner cities. The paper on Hell's Angels was given by a Canadian.
DI Saltmarsh said that both criminal groups were suspected of much violence and some fraud. He said: 'I know that, at the moment, Hell's Angels are keeping my desk more busy than any other type of organised crime. But we have to examine reports and disentangle truth from the anecdotal and the apocryphal.' The NCIS is sponsoring a conference of police intelligence officers later this week to do precisely that.
Some criminologists think that a little scaremongering can be justified. One school contends that public hype about the alleged threat posed by crack-dealing Yardies in the late Eighties alerted both police and the Government, with the result that the problem was controlled. The counter view is that the threat was never very serious.
Paddy Rawlinson, of the London School of Economics, who is currently completing a doctorate on Russian criminal gangs and has helped liaison between Russian and British police, is sure the NCIS is right to raise the alarm. She said: 'Many of these gangs are behaving like Thirties gangsters, indifferent to the rather ineffective forces of law and order. However, I believe the major potential is from white-collar criminals in stock-market and other frauds, rather than the gangster element coming over to sell guns, which seems a little unlikely.'
There is an argument that, in addition to helping nascent Russian commerce, the Government should be pouring money into helping the its police and law-enforcement agencies, and inviting more of their officers to train with British police.
Michael Woodiwiss, a lecturer in American Studies at University College, Swansea, and an expert on organised crime, fears the effect of exaggerating the gangster threat. He said: 'There is a danger of the whole thing being talked up - with the assistance of the media - resulting in ineffective solutions. We need a debate about alternative ways of dealing with organised crime, much of which is based on drugs trafficking.
'Most policies in Western countries are based on the globalisation of the United States's moral crusade and their model of drugs control.'
He supported the idea floated by another Scotland Yard officer, Commander John Grieve, that society should examine a licensing system for drugs, since all other means of combating the problem had failed.
Ron Hadfield, Chief Constable of the West Midlands and chairman of the chief constables' international committee, told the conference that by concentrating on the top echelon of criminals, NCIS handled less than 0.1 per cent of all crime.
It was not organised crime that most people were worried about, he said later - 'People are not walking down the street saying international crime is all out of control. They are saying 'I can't leave my house or my car in case they are broken into'.'
UNDER THREAT FROM ALL SIDES? WHERE THE GANGS FROM
1. United States: The Hell's Angels, whose 'mother chapter' is in Oakland, California, have a worldwide membership of just 1,200, but were described this week as the fastest growing organised-crime threat in the world, engaging in violence, drugs and extortion. The 200-strong British Angels have been identified as being involved in mortgage fraud, intimidation and violence. Some members drive BMWs and reserve vomit-stained denims for ceremonial occasions.
2. Jamaica: Yardies or Posses. The subject of much police attention five years ago, which may be why they have never really taken hold. However, members of these Jamaican gangs are said to be actively involved in crack and cocaine dealing in Britain's inner cities; also some extortion. Potential for growth limited because of poor organisational structures.
3. South America: The Colombian cocaine cartels, particularly the Medellin and Cali groups, are now regularly dealing with British and other European drugs traffickers, often former armed robbers. They have selected Western Europe as a growing market. Exclusively drugs traffickers but engage in violence and money laundering in support.
4. Italy: The four main groupings - the Sicilian Mafia, Neopolitan Camorra, the Calabrian N'drangheta and the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita - have all been indentified as having operated in Britain, particularly in money laundering and property investment, but maintain a low profile. Involved in drugs trade via links to Colombian cartels.
5. Japan: The Sokaiya, the white-collar branch of the Yakuza, the 300-year-old criminal network whose members tattoo their whole body, have been identified as being involved in banking fraud and insider dealing among British-based Japanese companies. Regarded by some as the best-organised criminals outside Italy.
6 and 7: Russia and the CIS: Two Chechens from this anarchic semi-autonomous southern Russian republic, involved in unspecified activities, have been murdered in London. Police, who have seized weapons from various Russian gangs on sale in Britain, are concerned that cheap former Soviet army weapons could be traded for drugs and cash in Britain's inner cities. Around 4,000 criminal gangs, dealing in drugs and guns, exist in Russia. Some police believe organised fraud and money laundering in search of Western currencies is a greater threat.
8. Far East: Triads, Hong Kong-based criminal gangs bonded by fearful oaths, have been identified as being involved in serious violence, extortion, drug dealing and prostitution in Britain, almost exclusively among Chinese communities. Concern about post-1997 displacement.
(Map omitted)Reuse content