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  • Writer's pictureJerry Ratcliffe

Operation Winter Shield

In this guest blog, vignette author Police Scotland Chief Inspector Martin Gallagher outlines Operation Winter Shield. In chapter 4 of Reducing Crime, Martin wrote about the development of his Grey Space Group, a collection of local minority group leaders who meet with police to get ahead of issues and any tensions in his command area. In this blog, he describes how progress in reducing crime is not just a matter of issuing orders, but instead involves understanding the context and leveraging multiple VIPER items to achieve positive outcomes.

In the last few years, a significant change has occurred around the police use of ‘Stop and Search’ in Scotland. The eight police forces that had existed since the 1970’s were merged into one organisation, Police Scotland, in 2013. The merger resulted in a number of substantial changes, many of which have been positive but some negative. One that was piloted by Strathclyde Police but didn’t work out well was the large scale use of ‘Stop and Search’ through obtaining the ‘consent’ of the person to be searched. While entirely legal, this approach was alien to most officers (including myself) who had not previously worked in the Strathclyde region of Scotland. Performance measurement around this new approach became increasingly sophisticated, and ended up largely driving police activity.

This change attracted significant academic, media and ultimately political interest. After numerous parliamentary appearances for executive level officers and horrendous media coverage the Scottish Government acted. The use of consensual search was banned, and a new code of conduct imposed on policing in Scotland.

Needless to say the furore, new (unfamiliar) code, and attendant negative media coverage, had made the use of stop and search powers a concern for operational officers in my sub -division when I took up my current post as Area Commander in Paisley (Scotland’s largest town, within the Old Strathclyde Police area). Proactive activity had dipped considerably, and young officers lacked confidence around the use of this important tactical tool.

Violence was rising in the sub-division, particularly around weapons crime. The local authority area, Renfrewshire, reported a rate of 3.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants; higher than London, and comparable with the city of New York. I knew I had to get a grip of this issue quickly. I started by personally attending all shift briefings to explain I wasn’t interested in individual officer’s metrics whatsoever, but what we had to achieve was a reduction in the population being seriously assaulted with a weapon. I took the time to speak through my own experiences of stop and search use, both good and bad. I tasked and received intelligence inputs, specifically on weapon carriers, and had focused briefings constructed around my area’s prolific weapon offenders. This was all with the focus on public and officer safety.

But it was not enough.

By September of 2017 serious violent crime was up by 10% compared to the previous year to date, with worrying increases in weapon carrying and knife carrying offences. From October 2017 Operation Winter Shield was put into full effect. I took a hands-on, direct approach. We increased foot patrols in plain clothes, and these supported high visibility patrolling in my crime hot spots, with deployments and activity guided by research and analysis.

The analytical unit strongly suggested we look to tackle the issue of benzodiazepine use and supply, with the aim of impacting upon the occurrence of violent crime in the area. To fill intelligence gaps, we focused on street Valium (Etizolam), which our intelligence suggested had a significant role to play in violent crime. As a Class C drug its supply at street level hadn’t been a priority, but when considering its wider impacts, we could argue that its targeting was wholly appropriate. Intelligence gathering efforts regarding the supply picture were upped dramatically, and we started to fill our intelligence gaps, increasing our knowledge around the problem.

As a result, we met with licensees at bars and pubs, influenced their door policies, and their attitude to low level problem behaviour in their premises. This prevention, rather than enforcement focus, instituted a reduction in acceptability of drug behaviour at the locations.

Our violence picture decreased dramatically, with 23 arrests and officers conducting over 40 positive stop and searches, including knife recoveries. Weapons recoveries have been up 31% compared to before the operation. Additionally, our raids off the back of the additional intelligence saw us recover more than two kilos of controlled drugs, hundreds of street Valium tablets, six illegally held air weapons, a crossbow and various swords.

I was approached independently by two officers with considerable service who told me that what had been achieved was a bit of a ‘light bulb’ moment for the younger officers. Throughout the briefings for the operation I had talked consistently about the need to ‘stop and engage’. My younger officers took this senior officer encouragement seriously, and were reassured about the move away from personalised performance data. They finally felt this gave them a justification to engage with and speak to criminals. I had judged correctly that in today’s policing environment such encouragement was what was needed as a form of confidence boost. Many of these conversations resulted in useful intelligence, filling our knowledge gaps about the problems we faced.

The operation attracted excellent local media publicity, and support on social media. I have ensured, through personal attendance at briefings, that my officers are fully aware of their positive impact on policing in Paisley. The boots on the ground reassured our public, and presence and activity is dissuading our weapon carriers. We’ll never stop all violence, but the more knives we can take off the streets the less victims there will be.

Martin Gallagher is currently a chief inspector in Police Scotland assigned as area commander in Paisley (U.K.). His has a vignette in Chapter 4 of Reducing Crime.

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