Police consider national database of informers: Criminal intelligence service targets Britain's 50 most wanted criminals as its chief estimates 80 per cent of organised crime is linked to drugs

A NATIONAL index of several thousand registered police informants is being considered by chief constables to prevent 'grasses' and unscrupulous detectives abusing the system.

The index, which would become one of the most sensitive police databases, would be maintained by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which is charged with gathering information on major criminals.

The NCIS would give each informant a codename so their real identities would only be known to their police contacts and forces. But the central index would contain sufficient information for individuals to be recognised if there was any attempt to register them more than once, as well as details of payments and information supplied.

In an interview with the Independent, Tony Mullett, who has completed his first year as the director of the NCIS, said abuse of the informant system, which is subject to strict Home Office guidelines, was rare, but the Association of Chief Police Officers believed a national system would help prevent any that might occur. 'Informants have been known to play . . . detectives or customs officers against each other and it is very difficult to guard against because forces have traditionally kept their records to themselves,' he said.

Mr Mullett said the NCIS was recruiting its own informants, whose information had already led to the arrest of 33 people for a variety of offences since the service became 'live' in April.

Some came with their detective handlers when they moved to the NCIS; others have been cultivated since, although Mr Mullett emphasised that the tight budget under which the NCIS operates means that informants cannot look to it for high payments.

The NCIS's databanks now contain details on the 2,000 most dangerous suspected and known criminals in the country, involved in crimes ranging from murder and serious sex offences to blackmail, robbery, fraud, counterfeiting and drugs trafficking.

About 50 criminals, resident both at home and abroad, have been placed in the top echelon. 'It is towards these people, who are not only of a certain calibre but who are also deemed to be 'active', that we will be mostly directing our attention,' Mr Mullett said.

It is those involved in drugs trafficking that represent the greatest concern. Mr Mullett estimates that 80 per cent of organised crime is linked to drugs, either through crimes committed to buy drugs, drug dealing or laundering money gained through trafficking.

He is anxious to improve the network of drugs liaison officers in Eastern Europe and is watching certain people currently resident in the Netherlands - deemed by Customs as a primary source for drugs.

A quarter of the 460 NCIS staff based in London and five regional offices are charged with identifying drug traffickers, tracing laundered drugs money and monitoring the movements of chemicals used in drugs production.

The traditional professional armed robber, who committed a robbery simply for financial reward, was 'a diminishing breed', Mr Mullett said. Many had moved into the more profitable world of drugs while many younger criminals committed robbery in order to fund drugs-related activities.

The NCIS has absorbed the work and some of the staff of the former national drugs intelligence unit, along with other bodies, many formally housed within Scotland Yard. These include the paedophile offender index, the national football intelligence unit, the organised crime branch and the stolen motor vehicle index. The British desk of Interpol is also now part of the NCIS.

Although the NCIS came into operation in April, it is not yet fully functional. Its new headquarters off the Albert Embankment, in London, are not complete while its specially designed computer, NIX, is not due to come on stream for several years.

Ultimately, the NCIS will play a major role in British policing. Mr Mullett, a former chief constable of West Mercia, sees it as being one of the most important policing bodies in the land.

But NCIS officers will only rarely be mentioned in court and appear even less. 'Our job will be to provide a package of information to local detectives - often at their original request because they do not have the time or the resources to target a suspect - and then leave it up to them to gather the evidence for court and make arrests.'

The NCIS will also target suspects on its own initiative, using all sources of information as well as the analysis of all reports of serious crimes, which will be fed into its computers daily.

But the NCIS cannot be 'a British FBI'. According to its own tortuous terms of reference, the NCIS will only conduct 'static surveillance' to prevent it becoming involved in mobile operations that might lead to arrests and thus conflict with its stated position of being 'non-operational'.

In theory, NCIS officers will remain in the background to preserve the sensibilities of local chief constables and detectives, although in practice that may not work out so smoothly.

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