Report identifies need for ‘sufficient resources’ to tackle serious and organised crime

An inspection of the north-east regional response to serious and organised crime (SOC) has identified a need for “sufficient resources in specialist areas” in some forces to meet demand.

Dec 8, 2022
By Paul Jacques
Picure: Northumbria Police

While Durham Constabulary was rated “outstanding” by having the right systems and people in place to tackle SOC, improvements were needed in some areas at the two other regional forces – Cleveland Police and Northumbria Police.

The report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found Cleveland Police did not have “enough financial investigation capacity to meet demand”.

There was also a need to adopt a “more consistent approach” to tackling SOC at neighbourhood level.

And while Northumbria Police was praised by inspectors for its “innovative and creative” response to tackling SOC, they found the paedophile online investigation team “wasn’t able to cope” with the volume of cases.

Overall, the report rated the North East Regional Specialist Operations Unit (NERSOU) as ‘adequate’.

The unit sees officers from the three forces working together to tackle crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, child sexual exploitation and cybercrime.

Although HMICFRS found the unit “has excelled in developing and maintaining good relationships with regional partners”, some NERSOU teams did not have enough staff to support investigations while the approach to digital forensics was “inefficient”.

HMICFRS also warned that the number of different officers, drawn from forces, who are involved in supporting undercover investigations could result in an “overexposure of operatives and covert methodology”.

“This creates an unacceptable risk where undercover officers could be recognised by someone who knows they are a police officer,” it said.

“This should be reviewed to make sure there is enough and consistent capacity and capability in forces to support the region and minimise risk.”

The inspectorate also recommended that regional chief constables should appoint “a single dedicated chief officer” to lead the response to SOC.

Individually, the report found Cleveland Police did not have enough financial investigation capacity to meet demand.

“Tackling organised crime should fundamentally involve the identification and confiscation of criminal assets. Doing this effectively requires specially trained financial investigators and analysts,” it said.

“Cleveland Police doesn’t have enough skilled personnel to meet all of the demand in this area.

“Financial investigators are dealing with large caseloads. They have little time to review suspicious activity reports (SARs), develop financial intelligence or proactively investigate money laundering.

“The force reported that it has a backlog of over 20,000 SARS that have built up over several years. They do investigate some SARs, such as defence against money laundering SARs, in accordance with national guidelines.

“But there is no capacity to analyse these reports to establish other types of criminal activity.”

The report added that Cleveland Police should “adopt a more consistent approach to tackling SOC at neighbourhood level”.

“The force should make sure there is more scrutiny from chief officers to monitor how SOC operations are progressing at neighbourhood level,” it said.

“It should be more robust in holding lead responsible officers (LROs) to account and establish where support from specialists can improve how it disrupts organised criminals.

“While LROs have good relationships with partners, there is a clear need for LROs to work more closely with specialist teams to be more effective at reducing the threat in some SOC investigations.”

Durham Constabulary was inspected under the previous PEEL SOC inspection programme, which found it was “outstanding at tackling serious and organised crime”, with “the right systems, processes, people and skills to tackle SOC”.

“The force uses many specialist skills to determine and counter the threat from SOC,” said inspectors. “In particular, its investment in digital intelligence and forensics, and its use of financial investigators.

“The force proactively pursues illicit finances. It has been recognised nationally for its analytical exploitation of suspicious activity reports to establish links to OCGs. It works hard to recover money from OCGs through confiscation orders. A financial investigator is appointed at the earliest opportunity in all OCG investigations. This allows the force to determine and pursue financial opportunities to disrupt OCGs.”

HMICFRS said the force display “innovative practice”, with the OCG disruption team, and “extremely effective relationships with partner organisations”, reducing the threat from serious and organised crime

“The force has a well-structured and accepted approach to disrupting the threat posed by SOC,” said inspectors.

“It has a dedicated OCG disruption team, with tactical advisers establishing good ways of working and giving guidance to local responsible officers.

“The OCG team also reviews tactical plans and advises on good existing and emerging ways of working. There is a very effective OCG disruption panel, involving a wide range of organisations. This panel helps intelligence to be exchanged easily. This broadens and deepens everyone’s understanding of SOC. It also helps decide which agency is best placed to lead or support disruption activity.

“The value of working together has been recognised as a good way of working.”

Northumbria Police was rated ‘good’ at tackling SOC, with a “creative approach” to understanding the threat.

The force is developing a data and analytical tool to comprehensively map place‑based harm. This allows the force to determine and prioritise the areas most affected by organised crime, and to decide where to focus its ‘Clear, Hold, Build’ activity. The tool is intended to make the force more effective and efficient in developing profiles of place-based harm.

Inspectors found there was “good leadership and management of SOC”, with a comprehensive strategy that aligns to national priorities.

“It was evident during our inspection that the workforce regards tackling SOC as everyday policing and that the links between SOC, vulnerability and safeguarding are well recognised,” said HMICFRS.

However, it added that the force should make sure that there are sufficient resources in specialist areas to meet SOC demand.

In particular, inspectors were concerned that the paedophile online investigation team “wasn’t able to cope with the volume of investigations being referred to it”.

“This means there could be hidden vulnerability not being identified and opportunities to safeguard people being missed,” said the report.

“Since our inspection, the force has prepared a detailed action plan to address this problem. However, it is too early to assess the effectiveness of the measures.

“In line with national requirements, the force looks at defence against money laundering suspicious activity reports (SARs). To support its priority of protecting the vulnerable, the force also looks at vulnerability SARs. However, due to a lack of capacity, it doesn’t routinely screen other SARs to determine offenders and victims.

“Additionally, the force has limited capacity to effectively investigate criminal finances and identify and seize assets.

“This was a similar problem to what we saw in Cleveland Police, but it wasn’t as stark in Northumbria Police.

“The covert authorities bureau was overwhelmed with the volume of work concerning the acquisition of communications data. This is a very small unit that carries out a vital function. We concluded that it is notably understaffed.”

Northumbria Police welcomed the recognition for its approach to dealing with some of the most serious offences across our communities.

“The report – which rated the force as ‘good’ – highlighted that a range of ongoing operations to pursue offenders and protect residents were continuing to achieve success,” i said.

“There was further recognition for the work the force does to prevent young people from being drawn into such criminality, most notably working with partners on divisionary schemes.

“Inspectors also praised the force for its innovative and creative approach to identifying areas where resources should be directed.

“This was notably around the initiative ‘Clear, Hold, Build’ – which aims to tackle issues associated with SOC within specific areas. It highlighted that one operation alone had led to more than 40 warrants being carried out and 500 arrests – while safeguarding those who were vulnerable.”

Detective Chief Superintendent Craig Metcalfe, head of Crime for Northumbria Police, said that as a force, tackling SOC is “a priority and it is great to see the extensive work we carry out in this area recognised so positively”.

“The findings highlighted within the report are a testament to the fantastic efforts made each and every day by our officers, staff and volunteers who are determined to make a real and lasting difference,” he said.

“We are absolutely committed to pursuing offenders and dismantling their organisations, while safeguarding the vulnerable and protecting our communities.

“We also want to prevent people from becoming involved in this type of offending, so it was pleasing to see the work we carry out to divert young people away from such a life recognised.”

He said the report further highlighted the way in which the force communicates with communities to raise awareness of activity carried out in relation to tackling serious and organised crime, through the dedicated Operation Sentinel brand.

Among the “overwhelming majority of positive findings”, the report did recognise some areas for development, with action already under way to address these, said Northumbria Police.

Det Chief Supt Metcalfe added: “We are far from complacent and are determined to build on the overwhelming positive findings highlighted within the report.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our partners for all the work they do to help us tackle SOC, and the public for their ongoing support.

“Together we can ensure the region continues to be a safe place to live, work and visit.”

Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, said: “The fight against SOC is very much on in Northumbria and I am pleased recent successes have gained the recognition they deserve in this report.

“There is great determination from officers in our region to catch those at the top who are masterminding the criminal activity that brings misery and distress to others including entire communities.

“For me, the real success is the recognition of the prevention work that is happening. Putting a stop to vulnerable young people being drawn into crime in the first place is the absolute focus for me and prevention work by officers and my Violence Reduction Unit is key to the fight against crime.

“I’m confident areas for development are already being addresses and I see this area of work going from strength to strength for Northumbria Police. It’s a well done from me to all involved.”

In response to the HMICFRS inspection, Cleveland Police Assistan Chief Consable Lisa Theaker said: “We welcome the findings of this inspection, as it will help us to continue to improve how Cleveland Police deals with SOC.

“The force sees the damage this causes to communities, and the harm it’s causing to individuals; the impact that SOC has on our communities should not be underestimated and we are committed to identifying, disrupting and dismantling those crime groups operating in our area.

“We are pleased that the report recognises our work around sharing information with partner agencies, and our effective analytical capability to scan and assess intelligence to tackle SOC.

“It is also positive that the HMICFRS were impressed by the significant improvement in Cleveland Police’s capability to better understand the effectiveness of our activity around tackling SOC.

“However, we absolutely recognise the need for us to build upon this improvement by exploring opportunities for increasing resources in some areas and better develop consistent processes in tackling SOC across the whole of Cleveland.”

Ms Theaker added: “The work to enhance our approach in preventing and dealing with this type of crime is already underway, with the effective use of Closure Notices which prevents commercial premises from being used for criminality, and also our work around Operation Eastwood, which is an initiative to deter children and young people from re-offending.

“We also have our work around Operation Resolve – supported by the local neighbourhood policing teams. This drives our pro-active approach to disrupting criminal activity by carrying out raids on homes and premises and targeted patrols and activity in hot spot areas.

“Across 16 days of action in November, Operation Resolve resulted in 42 arrests (for offences including possession of a firearm, rape, aggravated burglary and section 18 wounding), conducted 51 stop searches and made 111 intelligence submissions”.

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