Hoods: The Gangs of Nottingham, A Study in Organised Crime (2012)
ne bright day in the spring of 2001, a woman is in the kitchen of her modest home in Dale End Road in the Derbyshire village of Hilton when her doorbell rings. She is expecting the visitors. They are police officers and are well known to her. They are not visiting her on official business. One of the officers, who has recently been working as a detective inspector in the elite National Crime Squad (NCS), is the woman’s lover. Two colleagues from the NCS’s Nottingham branch are with him. The scene is an unusual one. Cocaine is being chopped on the kitchen work surface and in the corner of the room another man is smoking a joint of cannabis. He is a prisoner on day release from HMP Ashwell, serving six-and-a-half years for drug offences. The detective inspector talks to the prisoner as a long-standing friend; he knows him well. After all, he had personally busted him a few years earlier. The DI argues with his mistress about who should feed her cat and who should chop out the lines of cocaine.
Unknown to any of them, a covert investigation into their activities, codenamed Operation Lancelot, is underway. For six months it has been following the DI’s every move, even tracking his car via the blue road camera networks across Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. A few months earlier, in the dead of night, officers from Merseyside Police had broken into the woman’s house, in Dale End Road, and hidden a listening device with a video camera somewhere in the kitchen area. This, it had been reasoned, was where most conversations would take place. Hours of footage turned out to be useless because the household cat’s favourite sleeping spot was in front of the pinhole camera lens, but now the Merseyside team were rubbing their hands in glee. They were in business.
Their target is David Redfern, a highly respected Derbyshire officer of eighteen years with a wall cabinet full of commendations, who until recently had been on secondment to the NCS. There is also likely to be collateral damage to those associating with him. Alongside him is Derbyshire colleague Detective Sergeant Mark Jennison and Nottinghamshire colleague Detective Constable Heather ‘Charlie’ Bossart. The other two people in the house are Redfern’s thirty-six-year-old mistress, Nicola Bladen, and David Jones, the prisoner enjoying a day on release. Redfern had collected Jones earlier that day from the prison and driven him to Bladen’s home. Redfern would later say in his defence that he was trying to recruit Jones as an informant.
The cocaine goes down well. Investigators hear the sniffles of the participants’ nostrils as it is inhaled. The blonde-haired DC Bossart is heard saying that the last time she took it she had gone shopping and it was so good she felt like ‘dancing in IKEA’. Redfern advises Mark Jennison how to avoid detection if caught with a wrap of cocaine: ‘What you do is you hand in a wrap of Charlie to the exhibits desk and say you took it off an informant. Then if you happen to get pulled on something and you have a wrap on you, you can say, “This is some stuff I just took off an informant, it’s not mine, I was just going to hand it in. Just check, I did the same thing a while back.” Honestly, it works every time.’
Jennison is restless. His kids are waiting for him in his car outside and he has to make tracks. The group slowly dissolves. Redfern has some work to do; he needs to see a potential informant in Nottingham. He has had a run-in with his bosses already. He was sent back to his home force in Derbyshire the previous year because of something to do with his informant handling. ‘Was it something to do with trying to register one of his informants in Nottingham?’ he wonders. He is not sure but is sure it’s not due to his coke-snorting antics, after all no one knows about that except those in the room with him and he always has an explanation if he gets caught with anything. He must have felt safe. Maybe he knew other officers who got up to no good. Who knows if a sergeant smokes a bit of cannabis now and again, or a constable sells knock-off clothing to some of his mates? Maybe everyone is at it and no one cares much if a detective turns a blind eye to the Class A drug-dealing that his informant is up to.
BY THE END of April 2001, the covert team of Merseyside officers working on Operation Lancelot had compiled enough damning evidence against the three police officers and their drug-taking friends to make their move. All the material from the covert surveillance was being overseen by a management board from the National Crime Squad. It was a situation without parallel, underlining the seriousness of the situation – the material on the bugs was only known to them and those compiling the transcripts. The sensitivity of the material discussed on the bugs would present hurdles to negotiate once the case came to court, but no matter; the team was ready.
On Saturday, 28 April, in a series of dawn raids at their homes, Redfern, Jennison and Bossart were arrested along with seven other people, including two further Derbyshire officers, for alleged drug offences. The offices of the NCS in Nottingham and Belper were in turmoil. In addition, two of the NCS’s senior officers in the region, top boss Detective Chief Inspector Roger Hardy, senior manager Detective Inspector Ian Tucker and Detective Constable David Branston, were sent back to their home force, Derbyshire, in a move unconnected to the drug charges, though arising from intelligence received as a result of Operation Lancelot. It was later revealed in the High Court that they were told that the Director of the NCS, Bill Hughes, had lost confidence in the managerial abilities of the senior managers and questions had been raised about the informant handling going on in this NCS unit.
DI Tucker, who faced no disciplinary charges, later challenged the decision against him in the High Court. He had never been told what he was supposed to have done wrong, but such was the secrecy surrounding the case that even the High Court was unable to make a ruling to hear the case by judicial review. It was clear that Operation Lancelot had uncovered something more sinister than just the drug-taking, but taking it further would be a legal minefield opening up the possibility that previous convictions handled by the NCS unit in Belper could be challenged by jailed villains. This was an unprecedented moment in terms of policing at this level and a deeply embarrassing one for both Bill Hughes and the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who had set up the elite National Crime Squad in 1998 to replace the old regional crime squads. NCS officers were often perceived by both themselves and colleagues in more mundane police posts as the cream of the cream. Their role was to work in small teams of between six and ten officers, targeting the biggest criminals, who were often involved in large scale drug importation and organised crime.
By April 2001, some sixty-one detectives, from a total of 1,400, had been expelled from the NCS and sent back to their home forces. The scandal at the East Midlands units, however, was of another dimension: this was to be the first time that officers from one of the most elite police units in the country would be arrested and convicted. The NCS, which would later be swept under the umbrella of the newly formed Serious Organised Crime Agency, was only three years old and already some of its officers could not be trusted. By the time the case came to trial, at Northampton Crown Court in November 2002, Redfern, forty-two, and Bossart, forty, knew the game was up and pleaded guilty to possession of a Class A drug. In Redfern’s case, the charges also included possession with intent to supply and perverting the course of justice. Jennison, forty-one, denied supplying and possession of drugs but was convicted. Redfern was jailed for three years and nine months and Bladen for two years; both sentences were reduced on appeal on the grounds that the judge had been ‘manifestly excessive’ in his sentencing. Jennison was jailed for a year. Bossart received 100 hours community service for possessing cocaine. The officers were also dismissed from the Derbyshire force.
Rogue coppers are a blight on any police force but the repercussions when those involved are supposed to be part of an elite detective squad can undermine public confidence on a national scale. As Jon Murphy, Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, pointed out to a conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers in 2007, the police force is a reflection of the people who make up the society in which we live. ‘Society has changed and so have the people we recruit,’ he told the packed audience. ‘Many have been exposed to drug use, many have been involved in drug use – that involves purchasing substances and that involves criminal relationships. One thing we have learned is that once you cross that Rubicon there is no stepping back – even before officers and police staff join the service they can be compromised, this makes them vulnerable and this results in leakage of information and worse. It is not of course restricted to new recruits – there are vast amounts of criminal money swilling around the streets and some of it will inevitably be used to try to seduce and compromise our staff. Criminal corruption is borne out of poor culture, a culture where poor standards are tolerated.
‘Almost every investigation we complete tells us the same things: opportunities to get rid of corrupt individuals have previously arisen when they have come to notice before for bad behaviour, often resulting in discipline or even court. Yet the nettle has not been grasped. People bending the rules to get the job done ... we can all produce results if we play by different rules. Abject failure in supervision at every level – often why covert investigations create collateral damage. It is tragic watching, as I have, good people getting sucked into criminal conspiracies because they are too weak to challenge poor behaviour and consequently become increasingly compromised to the point where they can’t intervene without incriminating themselves. Intelligence is power and people want the power that access to our information and intelligence gives them. We rely greatly on the public to provide the information and intelligence that allows us to do the job. They provide it willingly, trusting us to protect it and use it appropriately. If we are not vigilant, our lifeblood will dry up and that hard-won trust and public confidence will be lost.’
By the late 1990s, senior police officers in Nottinghamshire suspected that there were a number of detectives involved in unhealthy relationships with criminals borne out of a less than rigorous informant system. Indeed the whole system was flawed. On paper the role of an informant and the role of the police or agency involved in it should be clear. The informant is usually an offender himself or herself and, in return for a favourable outlook on offences he or she may have committed, and sometimes a fee, they will agree to pass on information to a handler that would prevent crimes being committed by others of a greater magnitude. But the simplicity of it also made it ripe for abuse by both sides, particularly when the informant started to control the handler. The trouble would start when the informant would begin to use the handler to get away with their own crimes, to suck information from the handler and to plant information into the system which, while looking good for the handler, would also help the informant carry on with their illegal activities.
I met a detective who had two particular informants in Nottingham who he used to great effect, at least so far as ‘getting a result’ was concerned. I knew the history of both informants. One was a young black man who was a prolific drug dealer; so prolific, in fact, that he was dealing large amounts of cocaine to two Premiership footballers during in the mid to late 1990s. This young man, who I shall call Norbert, was willing to do anything to take out rival dealers in the city. On one occasion, there was to be a coke bust on a dealer who was hiding his double life as a takeaway owner in Nottingham city centre. Norbert had told the police about the man and dutifully agreed to go to him and see whether the gear was still there so they could carry out the raid.
‘He went in as planned but he was only supposed to do a reconnaissance to see whether the target had anything there at the premises,’ recounted the detective. ‘He came out as planned and gave us the signal that it was a goer. Sure enough the gear was there, several thousand pounds’ worth, but a bit less than there should have been. What Norbert had done was take a large amount off the bloke on tick to be paid for later and then left him to be busted. He knew that the guy was probably going straight to prison and there was no way that he was going to have to pay up. Not only that, Norbert got paid handsomely for the information he had given us. He was a winner on both counts.’
Another informant was a heroin dealer who we shall call Pamela. She was another prolific dealer who lived with a pimp and ran a number of prostitutes in the city. Time and time again she provided good information about the movement of heroin around the St Ann’s estate. She got paid thousands of pounds for her information but was actually passing on details of the large-scale dealers she herself was buying from and also details of her own competitors. In one year alone she had salted away £100,000 from her trade in heroin, selling it at £1,000 per ounce. Pamela had security cameras on her door and, in effect, her own protection; the police let her deal as long as she came up with results. That carried on until she did get busted for heroin and couldn’t argue her way out of it. Results of a kind were clearly achieved but this was tainted by the fact that the information was being supplied in order to make the informant’s drug dealing activities profitable and eliminate her competition.
The Nottinghamshire Police department which dealt with corruption had been renamed the Professional Standards Unit (PSU) in 2001. It was headed up by Superintendent Michael Leyton, who had been one of the detectives leading the 1993 Eaton Green investigation when he was a detective inspector. He took to the task of investigating fellow officers with zeal, so much so that he sometimes attracted criticism from peers who felt his anti-corruption specialists were targeting the wrong people. Fervour was, though, the very characteristic needed to bring down corrupt officers, who, by the very nature of their work, knew how to cover their tracks – and which methods the PSU might use against them. Nevertheless, the determination of the PSU to nail a corrupt officer could often lead to blind spots and the chasing of red herrings. That was just what occurred in the early part of 2002 when a police officer, who was suspected of corruption, came under the PSU’s spotlight.
This man was a respected detective constable who specialised in handling informants and in undercover and surveillance work. He knew all the main players in Greater Nottingham and also knew the drugs trade inside out. He got excellent results, albeit by walking a fine line. That was sometimes the only way to catch the villains, he would say: you don’t get results by sitting in the office behind a computer – and he was right. But by 2001, the PSU had drawn up a list of officers who they believed fulfilled the criteria likely to make them corrupt, and this officer was one they were going to take a closer look at. He ticked some of the right boxes. He was ‘old school’ and had been doing the same kind of job for more than a decade; he hadn’t shown much inclination to rise above the rank of constable, preferring to be at the sharp end; and he had a large number of informants. He also enjoyed getting his hands dirty. He didn’t like paperwork and hated being stuck in the office.
On 9 December 2000, an incident occurred which had major consequences. The detective constable had been involved in an investigation into a shooting at CJ’s Bakery on Alfreton Road, Radford: a man had been shot in the groin during a black-on-black ‘disrespect’ argument. The suspect, Christopher ‘Prince’ Llewellyn, had been arrested during a police chase and a firearm believed to be linked to him was booked into the Carlton Police Station storeroom, where exhibits were securely kept until they were needed for court. But when Llewellyn’s defence team asked to see the firearm, it could not be found. Llewellyn’s defence team, sensing something was up, or perhaps having been tipped off, were champing at the bit. Although the case was not ready for trial, the judge was not happy about the situation and was demanding answers. The weapon had been placed in the store by the detective constable some weeks earlier and now he was frenetically trying to find out where it had gone. He spoke to everybody who could have come into contact with it. There was no doubt that it had gone into the secure store, because it was there on the log in black and white. The supervisor responsible for the storeroom also remembered the detective booking the weapon in, because it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill item. Yet a series of searches at various police locations all proved fruitless. The detective constable, along with the exhibits officer responsible for logging the items, was served with a disciplinary notice for ‘property issues’. But while the exhibits officer carried on his job as normal, the detective constable was told he would be put on restricted duties and moved to a police station in the sticks until the matter could be resolved.
By the time the CJ’s Bakery case came up for trial in March 2002, the gun has mysteriously turned up again – in the very store cupboard which had previously been searched from top to bottom several times. The detective constable was understandably relieved but also bemused. Weeks and then months passed, during which time Christopher Llewellyn was found not guilty of attempted murder and possession of a firearm. But the officer was still under PSU suspicion. On 8 November 2002, he received a call telling him to see his boss in the office for a chat about informants. When he arrived, his boss, Detective Superintendent Michael Ward, was standing next to Superintendent Michael Leyton and another officer, Chief Inspector Vince Treece, from the PSU. They informed the detective that he was under arrest on suspicion of malfeasance in public office: in short, corruption. He was ushered to a police car by two more senior officers who had been waiting to take him to Worksop Police Station. They even tried to handcuff him before he got in the car but he refused to be humiliated in front of fellow officers and they relented.
The detective constable could not believe what was happening. He felt the PSU officers were deliberately trying to humiliate him and it soon became clear that the PSU had been running a fine-toothed comb through his life. Such was the depth of the investigation that they had accessed his bank records and telephone calls. He had clearly been the target of a long and protracted enquiry which had raised questions about his informant handling. As he languished in a cell for several hours, his home was searched without anyone being present. Dumbfounded, he then faced a barrage of questions, culminating in the assertion from the interviewing officers that he was a ‘corrupt and dishonest officer’. With the interrogation over, he was allowed to go but not before being told that he was suspended from duty pending further enquiries, though on full pay. The detective constable knew from the line of questioning that the PSU had spent the preceding months tracing and interviewing his informants. It seemed to him nothing more than a fishing expedition and, as far as he was concerned, the PSU hadn’t hooked any fish at all. For a while the PSU officers had also felt that way – until they had approached one of the detective’s most prolific informants, whose information had led to dozens of arrests.
This informant, a heroin dealer, claimed among other things that the officer had pocketed money which should have been paid to her. That specific allegation had been the grounds for arresting the detective constable, he was to learn later. However there was no prima facie evidence that the allegation was true. The informant was someone who had recently been jailed for dealing large quantities of heroin; not the most credible witness, by any rule of thumb, but particularly when it was a case of the officer’s word against hers. Still, despite the protestations of the detective’s solicitor, it would take another year before the officer heard that the Crown Prosecution Service was not going to recommend any charges against him. Even after that, he was kept suspended from duty ‘pending further investigations into possible misconduct issues’. It was not until January 2004 that he was told that not only would he face no criminal charges, he would not have to face any disciplinary charges. He was free to return to work. The PSU had spent more than two years turning his life inside out and it nearly broke him. He had colleagues pointing the finger at him and the stress of a two-year investigation had nearly ended his marriage. He was understandably angry and, after another six months in the job, still suffering from the stress and depression resulting from the investigation, he took the option of retiring on ill-health grounds. Not only had the force lost an excellent officer who had given his life to them for the past twenty-six years, the PSU had targeted the wrong man.
A few miles from the Major Crime Unit offices at Century House on Carlton Hill, where the officer had been based, another man was busy helping out the Bestwood Cartel. He was their clean skin. Shop assistant-turned-trainee detective Charles Fletcher had been in the job since autumn 2000 and was based at the busy Radford Road Police Station. In the two years the PSU had been investigating their red herring, there had been a real double agent operating under the radar. Fletcher had already been able to pass on a wealth of useful material to Colin Gunn and his associates. It would be 2003 before an operation was mounted to look at information going to Gunn via corrupt officers. Operation Salt was to be one of the most secret investigations mounted by Nottinghamshire Police. In the meantime a war was about to be unleashed on the city’s streets.
BY THE BEGINNING of 2001, Colin Gunn and his associates had assembled a band of middle-tier dealers to supply the markets in St Ann’s, Meadows, Radford and areas of nearby Derby. Two of these dealers, Dion Griffin and Carl Rose, were about to be targeted by Nottinghamshire Police’s Major Crime Unit. Intelligence suggested that Griffin and Rose were dealing with a Derby heroin dealer named Daniel Walsh and that Colin and David Gunn – David was now out of prison – were using Griffin to supply Nottingham’s estates outside of Bestwood and even to inmates within the prison system. Intelligence revealed that several prison officers from different prisons had been corrupted by the Bestwood Cartel to allow heroin inside. Operation Opal was set up specifically to target the middle-tier dealers used by the Cartel. Bugs were placed in Griffin’s hire car, and at thirty-year-old Rose’s home in Aspley, Nottingham, mobile phones were also bugged. The material gained from bugs in the car headrests revealed twenty-eight-year-old Griffin to have a big ego. He bragged to customers sitting in the car: ‘Look, I’m the only one who can get away with dealing in St Ann’s, the Meadows and Radford, no one else has got the contacts to get past the territorial problems, I can even get stuff into the prison. I’m the top man.’
During the weeks of surveillance, officers discovered that Griffin was overseeing up to ten kilos of heroin per week, as well as large amounts of cocaine and amphetamines. The heroin was coming in from the Bestwood Cartel’s links to the Liverpool underworld and was high quality. The cocaine, however, at wholesale level, was less than twenty-five per cent pure. By the time it had been cut to go out on to the streets, there would be less than five per cent cocaine in the grams people were buying for £30 to £50. It was cut with all sorts of other agents, including an anaesthetic which duped the user into thinking the numbness they were feeling came from the drug. Such was the demand for cocaine, poor quality or not, that people were still buying it.
Having gathered a large amount of information on what the Bestwood Cartel was up to, in autumn 2001 police decided to arrest Griffin and Rose. They watched Griffin meeting two other men in Radford and knew drugs had arrived at the premises. On 18 October, at around 12.30pm, the Operation Opal team burst into the property on Croydon Road. Griffin and the others tried to escape through a window but were not quick enough. Police found half a kilo of cocaine and more than £10,000 in cash. At another bust in Derby, police found more than £650,000 of cocaine and heroin belonging to Griffin and another £7,000 of amphetamines. Griffin was buying his heroin at £18,000 per kilo and selling at £21,000. Police estimated that his profits in the limited time they had looked at him were in the region of £100,000. He had properties in Ruddington, Nottinghamshire and Beaumont Leys, Leicester, a Porsche, Lexus and VW Golf, and sent his two children to private school. Next they arrested Rose, who had made at least £40,000 in just a few months. They found live ammunition and a Brocock gun which had been converted to fire live rounds. Griffin was jailed for five years at Derby Crown Court in December 2002 and Rose for eight years after initially pleading not guilty. Daniel Walsh, twenty-one, from Derby, who had been supplied with heroin by both Rose and Griffin after police had disrupted his own heroin network, was jailed for eight years.
When he eventually came out of prison, Griffin, who had more ego than sense, would make more headlines after filming himself on his mobile phone camera driving one-handed at speeds in excess of 130mph in his Mini Cooper on the busy A614 into Nottingham. He planned to put the film on a website but police found the footage after he was arrested in connection with a £14 million heroin haul in Ruddington in October 2007. They were astonished by the footage and chose to prosecute him. Griffin, much to his consternation, was sent back to prison for eight months in May 2008.
The taking down of Griffin and Rose had been only the first phase of Operation Opal and the detectives on the ground were eager to begin the second phase, which would see Colin and David Gunn targeted. In autumn 2001, over beers in the Carlton Police Station bar, some of the team discussed how long it would take to get to the heart of the Gunn’s operation. The general consensus was that, with the infrastructure for the investigation in place, including bugs and informants, it could be done in less than five months. It was a goer and, better still, they had the ear and the support of the head of CID, Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Davies, who had decided that the Gunn brothers were a threat that needed dealing with before they became any bigger. Some time during the mid-1990s, DCS Davies, along with the previous head of CID, Peter Coles, whom he succeeded in 1996, drew up a list of significant organised crime targets. The Major Crime Unit was the jewel in Nottinghamshire Police’s crown and had a track record which was the envy of many – so successful had it been in taking down major targets that a number of police forces used it as a blueprint. The list of targets Phil Davies and Peter Coles drew up was based around the intelligence they had on which villains were the biggest threat at the time. These included Wayne and Dean Hardy, David Francis, Robert Briggs-Price, and Colin and David Gunn.
Full of expectation that Opal would carry on to its conclusion, the team had a bombshell dropped on it: the top corridor at Nottinghamshire Police had decided that it was time to wrap up the operation.
STEVE GREEN JOINED Nottinghamshire Police as Chief Constable in June 2000 from Staffordshire. He was a surprise choice for many and a departure from the old-school, detective-influenced style of his predecessor, Colin Bailey. He told his officers that there would have to be radical changes at the force – that was what the Home Office wanted and he was there to see it implemented. Green believed that Nottinghamshire Police as an institution was riddled with problems. If it was a house, it would be condemned and demolished, he thought. He was going to stamp his authority on the force and breathe twenty-first-century change into it. The Home Office was behind him; it specifically wanted him to sort out the ‘volume crime’ problem and changes were needed in the force to achieve that.
The Doncaster-born Yorkshireman was forty-four, an ex-officer with the Royal Signal Corps. He had joined the police in 1978 and rapidly worked his way up, become Assistant Chief Constable of Staffordshire Police in 1996. Crucially, however, he had never spent any significant period within a criminal investigation department, something his critics would later hold against him. In June 2000, he made the drive to Nottinghamshire Police headquarters at Sherwood Lodge to take up his new appointment. He had already told the local media what he thought the priorities would be: ‘I do not see my role in Notts as making the police so specialist they become totally remote from the public. Reducing crime has to be the priority, no matter how hard that may be.’ He was taking over a force which had the third highest crime figures in the country and tackling this volume crime would be one of the cornerstones of his approach. ‘I am aware of the high crime rates and, make no mistake, it is going to be a challenge. I need to understand why it is so high first before looking at how it can be reduced, but reducing it will be my priority. I want it known throughout the force that I am coming to the table wanting to know how our service is being delivered and what effect it is having. The public often look for words of reassurance from the police and that is fine, but the best way of reassuring and making them feel safe is to reduce crime. It is the same with crime detection. I put far more priority on crime reduction than just solving crimes. Detection is just one of the many ways of reducing crime, which is what we all want.’
Green’s priorities soon became apparent. Over the next few months, the drug squad was disbanded. The Major Crime Unit, perceived by many officers as the jewel in the crown, was halved in manpower and detectives were sent back to their divisions. Murder cases would now be dealt with by those divisions instead. Green spoke passionately about speed cameras during the early part of his tenure, and in 2001 Nottinghamshire became the pilot from eight police forces allowed to keep money gained from speeding fines to be used to buy hi-tech digital cameras which could catch three drivers every second. His philosophy was clear, as he stated in a regional BBC television interview looking back on his arrival in Nottinghamshire. ‘The force desperately needed to modernise,’ he said. ‘It had got out of date in a whole range of ways. Secondly, we had to address volume crime: burglaries, car crime, robberies. They were going up; they needed to come down. It would have been impossible to say to the Home Office and indeed the public, “Just forget about that ‘cause we’ve got something more important to do.”’
But by 2002, the battle against crime in Nottinghamshire was becoming affected by poor management of resources. Scene-of-crime officers were sent out to only seven out of ten house burglaries and two out of ten car crime cases – well below the national average. It meant these crimes were now less likely to be solved and would trigger higher insurance premiums for householders in certain NG postcodes. A new call system, introduced by the Chief Constable, failed calamitously within a few months of going live in December 2001. For at least two months, thousands of people trying to contact the police to report crimes over the call system were greeted with a message telling them to call back later. In June 2002 alone, the county’s police failed to deal with 14,000 phone calls, including 2,500 emergency calls.
‘It was total chaos,’ one senior officer told me. ‘We had been undergoing a massive reorganisation and it just wasn’t working. There were people who just didn’t know what they were doing any more. There were times when two different teams of officers would be sent out to a job and then arrive to find that neither knew the other one was covering it. If you got burgled you would be lucky to get SOCO (scene-of-crime officers) out at all, let alone within forty-eight hours of the crime being committed. Added to that, lots of areas had lost their beat officers, some of whom had been there for years and knew the community, and instead you had police cars doing the beats. The message it sent to the public of Nottingham was that we were afraid to do foot patrols in difficult areas and we didn’t give a toss any more, so much so that we couldn’t even be bothered to answer the phone – we were only worried about targets.’
The changes meant that the Operation Opal drug investigation would not be progressing any further than the charges laid against Dion Griffin and Carl Rose. There was huge disappointment within the team at the decision. ‘We couldn’t understand it,’ said one officer. ‘We had been geared up to take on the Gunn brothers for a long time, they were definite major targets by any criteria you used to measure these things and this seemed the perfect opportunity – everything was in place at that time so we could step up a gear. There was no clear explanation other than the resources required did not merit the worth of the job, which was usually bosses speak for, “The Home Office are on our backs and we have got to spend the money in other areas so we hit our targets.” We were stunned and very disappointed. It was a missed opportunity. With hindsight, of course, I’m sure the top brass would have done things differently, had they known what would happen over the next few years.’
The Major Crime Unit had just successfully wrapped up Operation Long Island, which had led to the arrest of Robert Briggs-Price, but the view from the top corridor was that Long Island was to be the last major investigation of that type for the foreseeable future, unless an emergency cropped up. The cost of such operations was cited as a major factor in the decision, backing a view now held by the Chief Constable and several others at senior command level. It chimed well with the Home Office obsession with targets and, in a climate in which league table positions meant everything, it was a decision which the new Chief Constable Steve Green had wholly endorsed when he arrived in June 2000. Within months of his arrival he had brought in a raft of new measures, many of which did not strike a chord with either the public or junior ranks in the police force.
‘There was a view in the top corridor that we would be frittering away valuable resources on targeting individuals and as such taking out one or two top villains was not going to affect that many people,’ said another officer involved with Operation Opal. ‘They saw the major players as just one crime number, which of course it is but that was the only way they gauged it. You had to measure the impact that taking the top man out had on other crimes and the reputation you reaped from that. The feeling was that those valuable resources would be more wisely used to tackle volume crime, problems such as street robberies, burglaries and car crime. But if you look at what is causing all that volume crime, well it’s the gangsters. You need to take a holistic view of things if you are going to solve the problem and that means taking out the top players. Yes they will inevitably get replaced by others once you have taken them out, but by disrupting them continually you don’t give them a chance to settle and dominate the situation. We ended up going from a position of having an enviable reputation in the 1990s for taking out top criminals to a poor reputation where major league criminals from outside the city thought Nottinghamshire was a soft touch in 2001-2002.
‘There were some strange decisions being made around that time which basically came about as a result of the new Chief Constable wanting to put his stamp on things, so you had the disbandment of the drugs squad, the Major Crime Unit’s resources were being halved and on top of all that some of us were aware that there was a storm about to hit us in the form of gun crime – although we didn’t predict it would come on two fronts and be as acute as it was, all the signs were there to be read. The problem was some of the decision makers were just not au fait with the challenges that were facing them. Detectives from the Major Crime Unit were being sent back to their geographical divisions and there seemed to be a view that the specialist units were elitist. Well I suppose they were in a way because they had expert knowledge, but that is the way to meet the challenges facing you – you invest in the expertise available on the problem.’
It meant when the decision was made to draw detectives from whoever was available in the divisions, instead of from a pool of experts within the Major Crime Unit, senior officers ended up with a hotch-potch of a team which was not unified in the way that they had been before. Sometimes the teams contained detectives who were not even on speaking terms. ‘Sometimes we had divisional superintendents who wouldn’t let people out on major jobs because they wanted to keep their own staffing levels up to optimum levels,’ said a senior detective involved in Opal. ‘So senior investigating officers were often left understaffed, scraping around for detectives and without the expertise they needed or knitted team they needed. As a result of the specialist units being disbanded, we were losing large rafts of our intelligence system. The disbanding of the drugs squad had a major knock-on effect – there were areas where we simply didn’t know what was going on any more. The drugs squad had been very good in giving us an early warning system. It told us who was doing what and who the new players were coming through, and what the knock-on effects might be. We had seen firearms used but mainly connected with armed robberies or being discharged into cars or buildings as a scare tactic. By 2000 we started to see firearms being used regularly on the person, being used in an almost nonchalant, everyday way by very young street dealers who were shooting each other, particularly in terms of young black men shooting other young black men – all of it was connected to the illegal drugs market. That was of course where we took our eye off the ball; we were concentrating so much on dealing with the black-on-black shootings that we ignored what was going on in Bestwood and what Colin and David Gunn were up to. Until it was too late as far as some people were concerned. Had Opal been taken to its logical conclusion many of those people who were murdered would still be alive today.’
Some observers even suggested the disbanding of the drugs squad (which Steve Green reversed years later by creating a Drugs Directorate) was a misguided way of minimising the drugs problem, although this was strongly rejected by senior officers. Former CID boss Peter Coles said, ‘There is a school of thought, not mine I have to say, which would say if you don’t have a drugs squad – by that I mean an institution which is recording activity in the illegal drugs market – then you can almost say you don’t have a drugs problem. If you don’t have something dedicated to tackling a problem you can never measure it and know just how bad the problem actually is that faces you.’
As it would later prove, the decision to bring Opal to a shuddering halt was more than a missed opportunity; it was a decision that was to have tragic consequences. By the time the Gunn brothers were targeted again they had grown stronger and more powerful. A new operation would have to start from scratch and the force would have to dig far deeper to find the resources needed for a successful outcome than they would have in 2001. It would be another two years before it got underway and would be called Operation Starburst, a multi-faceted, top secret project which would be likened to a Russian doll, containing operations within operations, and which would at last attack the very core of organised crime.
In the meantime, the city’s reputation would be shot, literally, to pieces.