Operation Gravity: are police winning the war on drugs?
Hundreds have been arrested, weapons seized and thousands of pounds worth of drugs cleaned from the streets. But almost one year into Operation Gravity, is this war on drugs working? DOMINIC GILBERT reports.
It was November 2016 when Norfolk Police launched an operation to make life harder for London drug gangs funnelling crack and heroin into Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.
Police declared a “critical incident” in response to alarming violence spreading across the county, including stabbings, assaults, and the murder of drug user Steve Stannard in Norwich by dealer Hassiem Baqir.
There have been real successes. The kingpins of two main “county lines” running from London into Norwich and Great Yarmouth have now been convicted and jailed, and violence linked to drug gangs has fallen.
To date, there have been 307 arrests made in the campaign.
In May, six traffickers who brought heroin and crack cocaine from London to Norwich and supplied to more than 270 dealers in the city were jailed for a total of 42 years.
And just week, Aldenir Pinto, leader of an operation called “Apollo” which flooded Great Yarmouth with an estimated £250,000 worth of drugs was jailed for eight years.
But for some residents, nothing has changed.
Those living between Heigham Street and Old Palace Road in Norwich are so frustrated at drug dealers operating openly in their area they have decided to form a new resident’s association.
At a gathering of between 30 and 40 residents last Tuesday organised by Greg Churchill, neighbours said the dealing had to stop.
Communal flats regularly have addicts using drugs or sleeping in the stairwells, residents say, despite reporting dealers to the police.
One resident said: “There are people outside my door all the time doing drugs. The last time I called the police because I thought he was dead.”
Another said: “It is happening in almost every block and I daren’t open the door any more.
“There is a lot of dealing going on around here and they do it openly in the street. You have got drug dealers everywhere at the moment. We all know places where they deal, the police have been made aware and they are still there.”
Concerns are being acted upon, police said, as they urge residents to come forward with any information about dealing in their area.
The day after the meeting, reports of drug dealing on nearby Nile Street led to a 16-year-old boy from Hertfordshire being arrested on suspicion of possession with intent to supply a Class A drug.
And officers say they are intent on reducing the violence associated with the drug trade.
Detective Sergeant Craig Bidwell, intelligence co-ordinator for Operation Gravity, described the campaign as “one of the most innovative changes of mindset” in the force for many years.
“It is about working smarter rather than harder,” he said. “With public sector finances the way they are it is what we have to do.
“Ultimately their (dealers’) aim is money making. Like any other market you have a supply and demand curve.
“Before Operation Gravity the supply market was outstripping the demand market. That is why we saw the violence we did, because we had lots of groups competing for the same business.
“The enforcement work we do is keeping a lid on that supply to try to limit it and prevent us getting into that position again.
“If you take out one supply line the users will buy off another line. There is no easy solution and what is making a real difference is the joined up working and sharing of information. Unless we see the whole picture across the board, it is very difficult to do something about it.”
Working across agencies has been the focus of Operation Gravity.
Norfolk County Council refers under 18s arrested for drug offences to a group called MASH (the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub). The Youth Offending Team has designed intervention programmes adapted for young people involved in or at risk of becoming involved in the drugs trade.
Det Sgt Bidwell added: “We are talking about organisations making thousands of pounds every day, and we have to focus where the risk is. Certainly we are seeing less violence as a general trend.”
Anyone with any information about drug dealing in their area should call Norfolk Police on 101 quoting Operation Gravity.
Over the last year, around 20 vulnerable drug users suspected of being victims of “cuckooing” have been helped by specialist nurses from Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT).
Cuckooing is when dealers take over the home of an addict or vulnerable person and turn it into a drug den.
Since January, an NSFT team working from the police control room have been going to homes across Norfolk alongside police officers.
Terri Cooper-Barnes, deputy service manager with the NSFT, said they had helped 20 drug users where there was suspicion that out-of-county drug dealers have taken over their home.
She said: “We have visited their homes to encourage them to ask for help from treatment services, such as Norfolk Recovery Partnership.
“Working in partnership with the Police means that we are able to share information and work together to better support those who are vulnerable, and at risk of exploitation.”
“Modern slavery” of children
Efforts to keep children safe from the allure of money associated with dealing drugs are being made with a new play touring Norfolk schools.
Norfolk Constabulary’s Safer Schools Partnership has commissioned the new production of County Lines to educate young people on the dangers of criminal exploitation.
Teenagers are often recruited in London and sent out to Norfolk, but Det Sgt Bidwell said there is also a trend of local youngsters getting involved.
“We have a cohort of local kids we are picking up involved in supplying crack and heroin in the urban areas of the county that are almost working as a network themselves, but believed to be connected back to the London supply chain,” he said. “Ultimately they are still exploited children.
“It is essentially modern slavery being committed by these people.
“The biggest risk factor with the children that are wrapped up in this is they do not realise they are at risk or vulnerable.”