Monday, 24 October 2011

My day with the Police - raiding a Crystal Meth lab

Running towards drugs raid flat
Gas! Gas! Gas!” came the shouts as we turned and ran headlong back down the stairwell, with words like “death bag” and “poison fumes” having been implanted in our minds by the specialist Police drugs unit that had accompanied us on a raid of a suspected drugs laboratory, making Crystal Meth on a quiet Shepherd’s Bush housing estate near the BBC.

Round the back of the housing block was a plastic see through bag containing what must have been thousands of pounds of pure white coloured crystals, hurled from the third floor of the block of flats. The individuals inside, one man and two women, had been alerted to the raid by the full scale CCTV system they had rigged up which transmitted pictures of anyone coming near the front door to a screen inside their laboratory-front room.

Outside drugs flat waiting for entry
High, caught in the anti-pigeon netting on the flats, was another which hadn’t made it all the way down. I couldn’t stop looking at the innocuous looking plastic bag on the ground in front of me – it was odd coming face-face with a substance that has the power to kill someone within months of taking up the super-addictive habit, destroying them from within. “If you’re arresting someone on that” said a Constable, “it’s like they’ve got super-human powers”. “You mean they think they have” said I, “no, no – they really do – it fires them up into something unbelievable, writhing around like their life depends on it”. But then another told me that if you look at mug shots taken during the course of an addict’s regular interaction with the police, you can trace the physical signs of wasting on their faces.

CCTV used to spot Police
Such was a day in the life of the Shepherd’s Bush Safer Neighbourhood Team, who I last saw on one Saturday night on patrol around the Bush and I was privileged to be joining again for another window into their world of protecting our streets. Today’s action was a series of raids focussed on dealing with a drugs problem that has long blighted W12. After the occupants of the drug factory flat were led away to be questioned the officers searching the place brought out some of the assorted weaponry that the pre-briefing intelligence had told us might be there – it included a samurai sword and a heavy wooden axe with two jagged blades that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a medieval battlefield. Our officers were armed with nothing more than a fire extinguisher, a baton – and their own nous.

Weapons from drugs flat
We had come to this scene after having executed two other warrants, both for drug related offences, on the White City estate and on a road near to QPR what was clearly, judging by the neighbours’ reactions, a well-known suspected drugs house. The local neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, neighbours who lived around the property – and even the passing postman for goodness sakes congratulated the officers on taking action. They had all had to suffer anti-social behaviour at the hands of the occupants of this flat. In both cases the doors were expertly undone by a specialist police team with kit that is very clever but also very heavy, followed with no warning by a charge from a column of riot-gear clad police officers shouting “Police! Get down!” as they sought to use surprise and controlled force to follow what one officer described to me as a doctrine of ‘dominate and dictate’ the situation. After each dramatic entry it was if a Jekyll & Hyde transformation had taken place, with the officers immediately reverting to quiet and polite tones with those they were questioning, and arresting – in the face of some pretty provocative anti-Police vitriol from the unimpressed occupants of the properties.

In each case the momentary drama was followed by a long lull, as fingertip searches (another specialist task) and in one case dog handing experts (yet another specialist task) were brought in to deal with a none-too-happy suspected pit bull terrier. Half an hour later as the officers shivered in the cold outside a thick-set canine was brought out on an equally thick leash.

Prior to each of these raids we received an intelligence briefing which gave something of the backgrounds of the suspects, all of whom had recorded involvement in a variety of violent offences, some of which were on the very serious end of the spectrum. These were people who were potentially dangerous and certainly difficult. As if to illustrate this the house with the dog also turned up a stun-gun – which is a handheld device that is pressed against the victim before discharging a potentially lethal electric charge. Nice. It put the bag of cannabis they also found into perspective, and was taken off to be analysed as evidence.
A bag of Crystal Meth - thrown from the window above

And those fingertip searches? I asked the officer doing them whether he worried about coming into contact with needles – these were drug raids after all. He shrugged his shoulders – you need to do it, he said.

These are the things that the Safer Neighbourhood Team do on our streets with no fanfare but with every day exposure to risk that the rest of us would run a mile from. And yet these are also the people that are facing the brunt of some of the cuts we’ve all been hearing about. The Government, and to some extent our Council, talk about there being no “front line” cuts. And to some extent the figures back them up – the Shepherd’s Bush team has gone from 5 sergeants, 15 Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) and 10 Constables to 2 Sergeants, 6 PCSOs and 18 Constables. So in a sense that is a good news story – but what about that reduction from 5 Sergeants to 2?

Arrest being made
In the course of each of these raids, and during my time with the team on one Saturday night, it was abundantly clear to me that the Sergeant is basically the play-maker of the show. The three raids on that morning took approximately 16 hours of painstaking planning – can you imagine doing the risk assessment for an unarmed raid on a home-made laboratory manufacturing one of the most dangerous drugs known to man, the occupants of which are armed with swords/axes with every incentive to use them? The gases that are released during the process of making crystal meth are fatal to such an extent that if you breathe them in, we were told, there is nothing that can be done for you. The “death bag” we heard about in the briefing referred to holdalls that the drug-makers use to store their chemistry sets – they are caked in lethal resin which releases deadly fumes – so if you open the bag and breathe the chances are you will not live for much longer.

En route to raid on White City Estate
So the Sergeant is absolute lynchpin, responsible for what seems like everything – and we’ve just increased their workload by a factor of three. Consider that when you’re next feeling up against it at work.

And hang on a minute, what is the fabled “front-line” anyway? It sounds straightforward but one of the reasons politicians use it a lot is surely because it is meaningless. What about the specialist door breakers, are they “front line”? Probably not, but the raids wouldn’t have happened without them and there would still be those drugs on our street. And the dog handlers, are they “front line”? Again, no – but if you’d seen that angry canine bristling with aggression and muscle you’d have understood that the raid wouldn’t have happened without them either, the dogs are frequently used as weapons against the Police.

On our way to a raid near QPR
And just in case you were thinking I was eulogising the Sergeants over everyone else two incidents on the way back from the drugs laboratory really underlined why beat neighbourhood policing, run and implemented by officers and PCSOs who know the area intimately, really transforms our neighbourhoods. In one case, as we were driving back, we came across two men who had stopped a car on Ellerslie Road and were peeing through someone’s garden fence while holding cans of beer. They were stopped, dealt with using almost excessive politeness in the face of some fairly non-polite language and had their beer tipped away. Not happy customers.

White City drugs raid
And then the incident that for me underlined at once both the trivial and potentially serious that these guys face without any warning every day – in the afternoon, as we were inspecting some off licenses on Uxbridge Road for illicit alcohol (the subject of a separate article later), a young lad was seen walking down the road with the essential must-have box of fried chicken and chips. Being a confident lad he was illustrating his manhood by dramatically flicking chips on to the pavement as he walked along. Two PCSOs approached this Lord of the Manor and, again using politeness which can’t come easy when you’re dealing with an individual I would describe using words that can’t be found on a family blog like this, asked him to please stop doing that. Before they could ask him to pick his chips up, he started getting aggressive and mouthy, so they stopped and searched him. And what did they find in his back pocket? A Stanley knife. Bear in mind that these PCSOs are armed only with a stab vest. And a hat.

This was why when I last met these people back in June, quietly confronting danger and risk on our behalf, from sword wielding major drug producers to some cocky teenager with a knife, I said this:
“I find this starving of resources for people that are willing to do a job for our streets, dealing with utmost humanity to a terminally ill alcoholic on the Green one minute and then a lippy violent drunk the next, not to mention the paperwork and the potential for knives and other dangers, an absolute scandal. More on that to come, I intend to take it up with the Council”.
I did take it up, and in fairness the Council should rightly be praised for having responded. That Saturday night in June I was shocked to find they had to rely on a battered old van with no blue lights and a sliding door that had to be closed gently – in case it fell off its hinges.

Samurai sword taken from drugs raid flat
When I turned up for the morning intelligence briefing this week I saw the old van still, but also two shiny new looking vans as well, all three of which we used on the raids. It meant that we could get the requisite number of police officers and specialists to the three sites on time and together. And when I got out of the van, the door had been fixed. So credit where it is due, particularly to Greg Smith who leads for the Council on policing.

But on cutting Police Sergeants – next time you hear a politician either in H&F, or the Mayor or the Home Secretary herself talk about the “front line” being protected, remember that there is no such thing. The world of policing just isn’t that simple, and for every Sergeant or so-called “non frontline” specialist gone there are crimes and criminals that go undetected.

It's often said that difficult situations bring out the best and worst in people, and nowhere is it more true than with this team. They face the worst but do it with a sense of humour that I saw more of this time than last – some truly naughty jokes lightened the mood while an obvious preparedness to put in hours of (often unpaid) work because they genuinely care about the area they are serving is actually quite humbling. So the thought of that good nature being taken advantage of somehow is not a good one and I plan on making that case to the Council again – but in the meantime do say hello next time you see them, they might just need the sight of a friendly smile more than you think.

28.06.12 UPDATE - I learned during more time with the same team today that the man arrested at this flat received a sentence of 3.5 years. Which means he will be out in 12 months or so. What was instructive was my reaction "only 3 years"?! contrasted with that of the Police, who had been quite pleased.


  1. Thank you for a very interesting article.

  2. A fantastic article. Thank you very much.

  3. Dont judge its book by its cover.... Take time to make time... and dont look for answers, let the answers come to you...