Police unit to tackle organised gangsters

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A new national crime unit with more than 1,700 officers is to be set up to tackle drug traffickers and other organised gangsters, it was announced yesterday.

The unit will be split into two sections, an operational Crime Squad, made up of existing Regional Crime Squad members, and an intelligence- gathering wing, comprising the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) and some MI5 officers.

Details of the proposed crime unit, the existence of which was revealed in the Independent, were announced yesterday by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, at the conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in Manchester.

Mr Howard disclosed that two new "service authorities", similar to the existing police authorities, would be set up to oversee the national squad, which will cover England and Wales.

However, he did not offer any new money for the unit, arguing that existing budgets for NCIS and Regional Crime Squads should be enough.

The six Regional Crime Squads now have 1,421 officers and 229 civilian staff, while NCIS has 242 police officers, two members of MI5, 44 customs personnel and 250 civilian staff.

Mr Howard is expected to introduce a crime Bill in the autumn to include the proposals for the two squads. Under the plans, the Home Office would lose responsibility for NCIS, which would become an independent force.

Police chiefs believe a dedicated unit will be an important development in the fight against organised crime and drug dealing, whose influence is growing. Mr Howard said: "Organised crime is the multi-million-pound industry which puts heroin on our streets, threatens the integrity of our financial centres through fraud and money laundering and exploits human misery. We need a national response to threats on a national scale."

Sir James Sharples, president of ACPO, welcomed the new crime squad, which his organisation has been closely involved in establishing.

t New laws to allow the police to take out civil actions to seize the assets of suspected organised criminals should be examined, Commander Roy Penrose, national co-ordinator of the Regional Crime Squads, told the ACPO conference yesterday.

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