Police should be targeting middle-class white cocaine users to combat rising violent crime, a senior officer has said.
Simon Kempton, the operational policing lead for the Police Federation, said given the choice between wealthy recreational users and addicts living on estates, he would “stop the middle classes” buying drugs.
“If you look at why there is a market for cocaine from South America it is because people who can afford it are buying it and fuelling the problem,” he added.
“Street-level users are a problem because they steal to fund their habit, but on their own they will not support an organised crime group.
“The big market is people with money to spend and they are often oblivious to the misery they cause because it is not on their doorstep.
“Middle-class drug users do not come across the radar of police because they are consuming it behind closed doors… there’s a lack of personal responsibility.”
In its first Serious Violence Strategy, the government named the drug market as one of the key drivers of attacks and murders, amid a 22 per cent rise in knife crime.
Between 2014/5 and 2016/7, murders where either the victim or suspect were known to be involved in using or dealing illicit drugs increased from half to 57 per cent.
The Home Office said social media was being used by dealers to glamourise the lifestyle bought with their earnings, taunt rivals and brandish weapons.
At the same time, police and the National Crime Agency are battling the rise of “county lines” gangs who supply drugs from major cities into countryside territories controlled with violence and intimidation.
Children are frequently used to run drugs in the belief they are less likely to be caught or punished, and the labour and sexual exploitation caused has made British people the largest group of potential modern slaves reported to authorities.
Speaking at the Police Federation of England and Wales’ annual conference in Birmingham, experts said teenagers could take up to £7,000 week working county lines to destinations like Cambridge.
“The question is who is buying the drugs at that level? Who is buying them and are we tackling them as well?” asked Sheldon Thomas, the founder and chief executive of Gangsline.
“We need to tackle street gangs and gang crime but for me the big incubator is middle class people who buy these drugs.
“We need to tackle middle-class white people who are buying cocaine in very large amounts.”
Former Metropolitan Police commissioners Sir Ian Blair and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe have both raised the issue repeatedly over more than a decade, but Mr Thomas said the middle classes were still not being targeted.
Mr Kempton called for a change in strategy to tackle high-level users and distributors, rather than street dealers who are often young and based in deprived areas.
“I think there would be more deterrent needed for those who use drugs recreationally because at the moment there are no consequences for them,” he added.
“The only way it stops being fun is if the consequences outweigh it.”
He said police raids on bars and clubs where people are likely to be using drugs have a “localised positive effect”, before users return.
In the longer term, Mr Kempton called for a “properly informed public debate” about the criminalisation of drugs, adding: “I want parts of our society to stop being destroyed by the scourge of drugs – we tried prohibition and it hasn’t worked yet so I think we’re duty bound to check there is nothing else.”
Police chiefs have been calling for an increase in the use of stop and search to uncover drugs and weapons, following declining rates in the wake of controversy over alleged racial bias.
A report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICFRS) found that while searches on white people have decreased by 78 per cent since 2011, the decrease for black people is just 66 per cent.
Black people are at least eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, even though it is statistically less likely for drugs to be found.
HMICFRS said the difference suggests “that the use of stop and search on black people might be based on weaker grounds for suspicion than its use on white people, particularly in respect of drugs”.
The conference panel said some of the racial discrepancy may be caused by demographics in deprived areas that see higher crime rates and stop and search operations.
The Metropolitan Police is among the forces increasing its use of stop and search following an increase in violence seeing more than 60 murders since the start of the year.
But Roger Pegram, vice-chair of the Society of Evidence-based Policing, warned “poor” research meant it is impossible to tell what drives crime reductions.
“We need to ethically and robustly test ideas and assumptions about what might work and in what context,” he added.
Ché Donald, vice-chair of the Police Federation, said knife crime had been used as a “political football” leaving officers less willing to use the powers they have.
“If you want to take people away from street crime, the most effective way is to take them out of poverty,” he added.
“But a criminal leaving their house with a knife should be expecting us to stop and search them, but they don’t because it’s not happening. We’ve increasing got a section of society acting with impunity.”
Mr Thomas said issues of poverty and class driving knife crime go far beyond police powers, describing how he joined a gang himself as a teenager while looking for belonging and male role models.
“How do you change a child who goes out into the streets carrying a knife because it makes him feel better?” he asked.
“I don’t believe stop and search is going to stop knife crime, it’s a societal issue.”
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