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The Three P's
Prisoners, Property and Prostitutes
The first of the Three P’s
This isn’t a story of Sherlock Holmes-level sophistication. It’s more Elmore Leonard I suppose, involving as it does coppers, thick-as-mince villains and
hookers sex workers. There’s some stuff about how we investigated street robbery (i.e. muggings as opposed to armed blaggings) back in the day. I'll also offer some thoughts on 90s police culture, both good and bad.
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It was 1996, the dog days of John Major’s wretched government. There was another IRA bombing campaign and Jarvis Cocker was arrested at the Brit Awards. Brad and Gwyneth were an item, but Take That were consciously uncoupling. And regime change beckoned; polls suggested New Labour’s golden dawn was beading the horizon: Things Can Only Get Better. They certainly were for me. I was on my first proper plainclothes posting with the CID and therefore spared from wearing a silly hat for three whole months.
“Right, listen in,” announced John Watt, one of our detective sergeants. “The DI’s given us a job.” John was a burly Scotsman with a busted nose, a man who took his work seriously. Along with Rick, our other DS, we were part of Operation ‘Eagle Eye’, the Met’s anti-robbery initiative. With a wave of muggings becoming increasingly violent, we were given decent resources for a change; surveillance teams, covert camera equipment and fast, unmarked cars to ferry victims around in. This enabled them to identify suspects minutes after a robbery. We had decoys too, young female officers with nerves of steel. They volunteered to wander the streets waiting to be mugged. When they did, half a dozen hefty TSG blokes would appear to nick the unsuspecting robber. One suspect who fell for the bait pissed his trousers with fear.
Our two DS’s led a team of four experienced DCs and four PCs learning the ropes. All of the non-detectives (me included) harboured aspirations to join CID, which back then was a protracted and highly competitive process. Now you can just walk straight into the Job as a Dc. There’s probably a reason for that.
We entered into the spirit of Eagle Eye with gusto; eventually we saw a report from an informant mentioning how tough our patch was for robbers. This led to crime displacement into neighbouring divisions, but I was a grunt, not a strategist. I just wanted to arrest bad guys. We’d come in early to check the (paper) crime reports for robberies and nab the best ones. Those were offences with a good physical description of a suspect, eye witnesses and solid forensic opportunities. CCTV infrastructure in London was nowhere near as comprehensive as it is now; we relied on fingerprints, ID parades and artist composites of suspects. DNA evidence was reserved for serious offences such as rape and murder rather than ‘volume crime’ like robberies. The technique was in its infancy as the UK’s national DNA database was only established in 1995. I even remember charging a suspect from the mechanical fit of a scrap of paper I found in his pocket after I arrested him – the other half was in the victim’s stolen handbag, which someone found near his flat.
We were proactive too; we patrolled robbery hotspots and got to know our suspects. We’d map the rat-runs around the estates where many of the robbers lived. Rick would take us for breakfast at the cafes where they congregated. It wasn’t quite Pacino and De Niro in Heat, but we let our targets know we were watching. Crude psyops, I suppose. Registered informants – back then divisional officers ran their own – provided information on robbers and fences selling stolen goods. We’d obtain search warrants (sometimes from a bleary-eyed magistrate in the small hours) and raid suspect’s homes. Criminals didn’t work nine-to-five and neither did we. As well as stolen gear, we’d seize cash, weapons and drugs. And the decoy operations were often successful too.
The overall strategy was to create momentum, to make offenders feel constantly under attack. At the risk of sounding like a backwoodsman, we didn’t emote over criminals or fret about their socioeconomic woes. They were recidivists. They would go out at night to beat up women (it was usually women) for their stuff. And we arrested and charged them for it. We weren’t social workers, nor did we want to be.
Morale was high, which I put down to leadership. Rick, my DS, was a cultured man mysteriously known as The Fish. He and John both previously served on the Regional, then National, Crime Squad. The DS’s were generous sharing their experience with us. They were good-humoured, professional and shrewd. We worked hard and played hard. I also remember office lunches to give the French Brigade Criminelle a run for their money. Rick was particularly fond of Guinness and Oysters. I remember him squeezing lemon onto a plate of fruits de mer when a dodgy geezer sauntered into the pub and tried to flog a Hugo Boss suit to our DI. Sometimes it felt like being in an episode of Minder and I loved it.
Life was simpler in the Met of the 90s compared to the one I retired from; risk assessment meant discussing whether another pint the night before a 6am raid was a good idea. Much of the nonsense endemic in the Met nowadays was still a fiendish plan in Ian Blair’s head while he was sitting in Trap One with The Guardian crossword.
I enjoyed the posting, but the Job wasn’t all milk and honey. The CID could be cliquey and exclusive. Too many detectives were dismissive of uniform colleagues (who they called ‘Lids’, ‘Woodies’ or ‘The Helmetry’). I saw examples of flagrant nepotism and most women absolutely had to work harder than men to be accepted. It wasn’t quite Life on Mars, but there were moments where the gap between reality and caricature narrowed. I think the CID didn’t care as long as they were catching villains. If it worked, the thinking went, then why fix it?
This partly explains why senior uniform branch officers (the people who really run the police) eventually ripped divisional CID to shreds. I do wonder, though, if they threw the baby out with the bath water. I write this as someone who spent his career with one foot in and one foot out of the CID. This isn’t a popular opinion, but as I’ve written before, policing isn’t a popularity contest. The moment it becomes one, you’ve already lost.
Back to the story, as by now you’ll have realised narrative detours are all part of my schtick. Besides, I’m not writing a novel here. I’d prefer it if you imagine I’m telling you the story over a drink.
Anyhow, there was a gleam in John Watt’s eye. A bloke convicted of shooting a police officer in the north of England had absconded from prison (the Met would never put it like that – there’s slang for everything. In this case, ‘he went over the wall’). The local police believed he had an ex-girlfriend in London. Incredibly, the convict then signed on for unemployment benefit at a DSS office on our ground using his real name. When asked a few simple questions by DSS staff he was evasive and rude. Suspecting fraud, they called the police. One check on the PNC later and we were game on.
“Fifteen-and-a-half, John,” I lied.
Cops in the 21st Century Job might be wondering the following points, using the National Decision-Making Model; did we consider if our DSS contact was a CHIS? Did our subterfuge posing as DSS staff constitute an undercover operation? Was there a full risk assessment and video-recorded briefing? Was there a firearms team on standby? Was there a surveillance authority in place for watching the DSS offices with due regard to collateral intrusion? Did we begin filling in voluminous decision logs?
No, we didn’t. With a NO-shaped cherry on top.
We were doing what 99% of the public expected the police to do, and in any case the bureaucratic octopus of RIPA had yet to be hatched. Instead we relied on the Police Act, which covered this stuff with agreeably English legislative ambiguity. As for risk assessment? Whisper these forbidden words – experienced officers were allowed to use judgement and discretion.
If you stick around, no doubt you’ll see me return to the theme of common versus statute law – what isn’t forbidden is permitted, not the other way around. It’s why mainland European police forces are even slower than we are, constrained as they are by investigating magistrates and proscriptive, pernickety legislation.
Ah, I hear someone say, what if the suspect had a gun?
The officers who knew the suspect considered it unlikely. There was no intelligence our man was tooled-up. We reasoned the bloke wanted to keep his head down, not start nosing around a strange city looking for firearms. Our DI agreed. Besides, Armed Response Vehicles were a recent development and a precious resource. Five years earlier there would’ve been revolvers in the station safe and divisional ‘shots’ would have joined us just in case. Wisely, those days were over.
Or, I suppose, we could let the fucker escape while we studied our navels.
An hour later I was sitting with Rob in the DSS office. We were unlikely social security clerks, as Rob was a nattily-dressed black guy and I was wearing the unofficial crime squad uniform of Timberland boots and a lumberjack shirt. Rob decided it would be easier if we turned the lights off to provide an element of surprise. I nodded sagely, assuming as a Dc he must do this stuff all the time. We waited for five very long minutes, trying not to giggle.
Finally the door opened and Rob called the suspect’s name. I saw a shadowy figure enter the room, which was when we switched on the lights. Our quarry was a weaselly-looking bloke, the look on his face one of stoic disappointment. We jumped him, my fear of messing up in front of Rob trumping any fear of an escaped convict who’d shot a policeman. Our man put up token resistance, by which time the rest of the team arrived. He was arrested, cautioned, handcuffed and bundled into a car.
We returned to the Main Office. “Right,” said John. “I’ve got an idea.” Good detectives scent opportunities for evidence and intelligence. The con’s ex-girlfriend was on offer for Harbouring an Escaped Prisoner. Furthermore, a check with our collator (as the divisional intelligence officer was quaintly known) showed she was a busy prostitute in Paddington Green and linked to some interesting characters.
After booking in our prisoner, we jumped in the car and headed to Paddington Green, an area notorious for on and off-street prostitution. It was a blustery February afternoon, near-dusk by the time we knocked on the door of a Victorian basement flat. John was in the lead, with Jo, the only female Dc on our team. The rest of us lined up behind them. For all we knew, the girlfriend might have a client who wouldn’t take kindly to being disturbed by Old Bill.
A young Asian woman opened the door, dressed in a neat pink tunic and an apron. She was the maid who kept the brothel clean and tidy. John asked for our suspect’s girlfriend by name. Before the maid could reply, another woman stepped from behind a beaded curtain. I remember she was dark-haired and quite beautiful, dressed in a long silk robe and a froth of lingerie. “I’m DS Watt,” said John, “you’re under arrest for harbouring a fugitive.”
“You’re fucking joking!” she shrieked as John cautioned her.
“It’s okay,” said Jo, reaching for her arm. “We can sort it out, but we need to come inside and take a look around.”
“Fuck off,” the woman spat, angrily pushing Jo’s hand away as she jumped up and down in rage. At this point, her bosom spilled from her not-very-supportive underwear.
I’ll never forget John’s response. “Excuse me love,” he deadpanned, raising an eyebrow. “Would you put those away please? Some of us are trying to work.” Fair play, she took one look at his face and laughed. So did the rest of us.
There was a bedroom with a king-size bed, which smelt of joss sticks and expensive perfume. Beyond, through a door, was a fully-equipped dungeon. I’ve always tried to be a live-and-let-live sort of person, especially when it comes to sex and consenting adults. Nonetheless, the sarcophagus-sized iron maiden in the back room was a new one on me. As were the rules for submissive clients chalked on a board (Grovel to Mistress, BITCH!). This was, back then, deeply kinky stuff. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and the mainstreaming of BDSM was years away (don’t worry – that’s a benign link there).
We searched the flat, discovering a substantial amount of cash in a box under the bed. With the cash were her regular’s business cards. I’m not kink-shaming anyone, but you won’t be overly shocked to learn many punters were successful businessmen, military officers and members of the legal profession. The woman told us her ex-boyfriend turned up begging for somewhere to stay. She relented. “He shot a copper,” I shrugged, feeling a little sorry for her. But not that sorry. Lie with dogs and catch fleas. I felt sorrier for the copper her fuckwit ex blasted with a shotgun.
She was an interesting person, happy to chat. It turned out she had an expensive heroin habit, but was too clever to have any gear in the brothel. There were some sealed hypodermic needles though. Forget ‘Trainspotting’, there are plenty of people with a discreet dependency on Brown who never burgle houses. She told me matter-of-factly she made a small fortune working with whoever she chose, whenever she chose. As the youngest officer there, I think she thought she could charm me a little. Maybe distract me from finding something.
She couldn’t. It was instilled into every new copper’s head that if you don’t watch yourself around the Three P’s, they will ABSOLUTELY RUIN YOUR DAY. They are Prisoners, Property and Prostitutes.
I glanced at the evidence bag full of twenty pound notes – this adventure involved all three.
We took her back to the station and booked her in, along with the cash and some of her ex-boyfriend’s stuff. He was in the next cell, but I don’t think they had much to talk about. He was going back to prison, officers from the north on their way to pick him up. She’d be bailed until the CPS decided to charge her or not. I went home and slept like a log. I had an early start the next morning, another day playing cops and robbers.
Fourteen-odd years later I finally got my detective’s ticket (I take a meandering route on most journeys, I find the scenery more interesting). Having spent most of my career in counterterrorism and anticorruption, I returned to divisional CID for a few months. I discovered many crimes now involved people being nasty to each other on Facebook. Except they weren’t really crimes, they were bullshit. Each detective also had at least forty real crimes on the steam-powered reporting system to investigate, following cut-and-pasted instructions assigned by an overworked DS. Much importance was given to Sanctioned Detections, Home Office Counting Rules and other performance-based mendacity. Detectives refused to be contacted out of hours, let alone come in early. Many hated their jobs and some returned to uniform. Squads were bad. Generalists were good. Managers were promoted. It was like working in a call centre.
The uniformed bosses revenge was complete, but ultimately it was the public who lost out the most.
Some names have been changed, except for John Watt’s. He was an outstanding copper in every way. He tragically took his own life in 1998 and this piece is dedicated to his memory.
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