Illegal drugs trade creating latter-day mafia, police chief warns

Illegal drug dealing and the prominence of so-called “county lines” gangs are creating a “latter-day mafia” in the UK, a prominent police chief has warned.

Durham Police Chief Constable Mike Barton has said that old-fashioned “hackneyed” police tactics will not help tackle the issue, and says he has instead urged his officers to think outside the box.

He added that that there is a risk of “narco-states” forming across the country, caused by money falling into the hands of criminals through the drugs trade.

Mr Barton was speaking shortly after being involved in a series of raids on Wednesday in which 16 people were arrested across Darlington and Newton Aycliffe on suspected drug offences.

The arrests were part of Operation Sentinel, a joint initiative between the Northumbria, Cleveland and Durham police forces to disrupt and prevent organised crime in the North East.

Mr Barton, who recently announced that he will retire on June 7, said when he took up the role of chief constable in 2012 that tackling such organised crime, like the drugs trade, would be high up his agenda.

But he said that, despite the work of “truly inspirational and really brave people”, drugs are now “cheaper, stronger, more dangerous and more freely available”.

Voicing his view that the prohibition of certain drugs simply leads to money falling into the hands of potentially dangerous criminals, he told the Press Association: “We’re creating a latter-day mafia in the UK, on the back of the Class A drugs trade.”

Mr Barton said that "myopic" attitudes towards drugs need to change (Durham Police/PA)
Mr Barton said that “myopic” attitudes towards drugs need to change (Durham Police/PA)

Making comparisons with the perceived growth of the mafia in 1920s America during the period of alcohol prohibition, he said that “myopic” attitudes in the UK need to change.

Referencing his belief that the current prohibition on Class A drugs is not effective, he said: “More arrests and more raids might look good in terms of us puffing our chests out in policing, but it will serve absolutely no purpose.

“The reason why we’re arresting more and more people for county lines is because there’s more of it.”

He added: “On the evidence of the last 30 years, and the 39 years I’ve been in policing, it isn’t working.

“I wish it was, and I started my policing career thinking it was. I’ve arrested more drug dealers and more serious villains than you can shake a stick at.

“It’s worse now than it ever was. Drugs are stronger, more dangerous and more freely available than they ever have been.”

Mr Barton said that he and his colleagues have devoted much time to attempting to break up county lines gangs – where criminal networks funnel drugs from cities to towns and rural areas.

A characteristic of such groups is that the vulnerable – including people that are homeless, young, or single parents – are exploited by the network to sell illicit substances.

Mr Barton is due to retire later this year (Durham Police/PA)
Mr Barton is due to retire later this year (Durham Police/PA)

The police chief also warned about the practice of “cuckooing”, whereby county lines dealers take over a person’s home and use it as their base for storing drugs, cash and, in some cases, weapons.

At the start of his tenure as chief constable, Mr Barton said he advocated an “Al Capone” style of policing where, using the same method that officers employed to bring down the Chicago gangster, police bring down hardened criminals for lesser offences when they cannot be brought to justice for their more serious crimes.

When asked whether such a method could be used to bring prominent figures in the illegal drugs trade to justice, he explained: “I think we’ve just got to be imaginative in the way that we tackle serious organised crime.

“Criminals are hugely adaptive to the landscape in which they operate, and if we keep using the same old tools, the same old hackneyed tactics, they’re just going to run rings around us.

“So, all I advocate in my organisation is to keep changing the way that you operate.”

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