TWO years ago, the shocking murder of a man shot dead in the street in Boscombe highlighted the unseen drugs war on our streets.
But that wasn’t the end of drug gangs operating in our county and now, in a rare and exclusive interview with the Bournemouth Echo, Detective Chief Superintendent Mark Cooper – who is Dorset Police’s Head of Crime and Criminal Justice Commander – outlines today’s gang issues in the county.
He states that despite the fact there have been two gang-related murders in the last six years, Dorset ‘does not have a gang culture’.
It comes just months after a Met officer warned that gangs from London are increasingly ‘spreading their wings’ to seek markets for drugs in other areas of the country.
The gang culture operating primarily in Bournemouth was exposed on July 25, 2012, when 21-year-old Londoner Reece James, was murdered on Roumelia Lane in Boscombe in what was thought to be a ‘planned hit’.
At the time, Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood likened the fatal shooting to a ‘scene from The Wire’.
He spoke publicly about his fears that Somali drug gangs were targeting Bournemouth because they saw it as a ‘soft touch’ compared to larger cities.
However, Det Chief Supt Cooper said that is not the case and warned: “I have a very strong message for gangs, and I don’t say this lightly as we have proven success.
“If you come to Dorset and think that the police will be a bit of a pushover you will be shocked and surprised.
“I can confidently say we know everyone who is involved in it and we very quickly get to those who come into the area and try to establish new markets and will deal with them very robustly and intently.
“We don’t give up.”
Contrary to public perception, ‘organised crime is throughout Dorset but focused in the conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole,’ he explains.
Speaking about the Roumelia Lane murder, Mr Cooper said: “It was a really intense investigation for us.
“It was months of work at a very high level, I invested a huge amount of resources – we put everything into it.”
Following the murder, teams of police officers tackled drug dealing and misuse as part of Operation Crackdown which saw officers carry out more than 175 drug raids in the following 12 months.
“Dorset doesn’t have a gang culture, we don’t have local residents and individuals that form a gang to cause terror or have local control of the drugs market.”
“That is not how it works in Dorset,” he adds.
He explained that gangs typically from large cities look for an opportunity to infiltrate established on-street and off-street drugs markets, then come down to Dorset, intimidate and take over.
“It can be a quick changeover,” he said.
“Intelligence shows a new group has moved in, I don’t see numerous groups coming in to change over. It happens very rarely.
“There is a vast amount of money involved so if they can come in and take over from an established drugs market and, let’s be honest, we do have some – albeit on a slightly smaller scale – in Boscombe,” he explains.
He dismissed the problem of on-street prostitution in Boscombe as related to the gangs and said they have found it is purely a drugs-related business.
And that drugs business is not just for the weekend trade, it is about establishing yourself.
He said: “We have an affluent night-time economy which is associated to the drugs trade and the use of cocaine.
“You may see individuals coming to a hotel for the weekend to maximise profits, but it’s about establishing yourself.
“You can’t just arrive with a load of drugs in your pocket and expect to sell it. It’s infiltrating an established market, taking over the phones so people know who to ring.”
He added: “We don’t have big gangs, we don’t get 30 people come down on a bus and take over the drugs market. It will be one or two individuals and there might be some rotation.”
His Major Crime Team, made up of senior detectives, work with their intelligence networks, safer neighbourhood teams and communities to find out the daily goings-on of such gangs.
Mr Cooper said that the proactive police activity in Boscombe is always intense and that it is not just in response to serious events.
He said: “I am confident that local policing is tackling these individuals, stopping them, talking to them, turning them over and trying to disrupt the criminal activity consistently every day – trying to make it as difficult as we possibly can.”
In some cases, specialised officers, undercover resources and firearms officers will be deployed if the threat level is raised.
He compared James’s murder to the earlier murder of Luke Campbell in 2008 as another drug gang-related death.
“Again it was widely publicised that there were offenders from Dorset who came to Bournemouth. It was the same story where gangs tried to infiltrate what they believed was an established drugs market, these people go southwards and northwards and look into towns all over. It is a very organised business.”
In both murder cases new technology, CCTV, ANPR was a very critical element to the enquiry.
He said Dorset Police’s response to major crime is “the best it’s ever been” and that various crime units, from serious and organised crime to a paedophile investigation team are all experienced and good at their jobs.
In terms of cutbacks he said: “Money has been difficult but it hasn’t affected policing.”
Firearms not widespread
After years of experience in Dorset Police catching serious criminals, Mark Cooper said: “We are better at identifying organised crime.
“I can’t say there is more or less of it now as we don’t know.
“I can say we are now better at identifying those who are well organised and committing that high-level criminality.
“You’re not talking about criminals who will communicate their activity and be very open, you’re talking about sophisticated, well-organised individuals that keep themselves under the radar, don’t draw attention to themselves and are very considered.”
Despite the clear threat of gangs operating on our streets Mr Cooper said that he does not think that gangs routinely carry guns in Dorset.
He said: “Now we’ve had a shooting in Boscombe, so to say that doesn’t exist is not right, but they are individuals that have come down with firearms, committed the deed and then gone. But are people routinely carrying firearms in Dorset? No.”