It is 4am and a gaggle of bleary-eyed journalists and cameramen have congregated at Kensington Police Station. In lieu of coffee, press officers dole out reams of confidentiality agreements for us to sign before we depart for the rendezvous point, or ‘RVP’, in West Kensington. This is the fourth day of Operation Puglia, one of the largest ever Met Police operations targeting ‘men of violence’ and their associates. Thus far, 61 individuals have been captured and, deo volente, a further 11 will be arrested today. We are the final van to arrive at the RVP, tucking in behind one of seven Met police vehicles and two City of London riot vans, where officers are streaming out. In a bid to capture the Hollywood shot, one maladroit journalist causes a minor bottleneck by tripping on his shoelace, but the synchronised canter of the officers continues unabated. Upon reaching the address, the officers huddle around a hydraulic jam, pump it, and within seconds, the door blasts open. All that can be heard from below are the testosterone-ridden cries of ‘POLICE’ until a silence washes over the estate. It does not take long for the silence to be punctured: a confirmation is received via radio call that the suspect has been arrested.
In the remaining hours of the morning, the Met conducted 10 more raids, resulting in seven arrests. As this newspaper goes to press, 71 subjects have been charged so far with over 300 offences. Borough Commander Chief Superintendent Detective Raffaele D’Orsi, one of Operation Puglia’s chief coordinators said: “As a cadre, those 71 individuals were responsible for 840 crimes in the area… Given that the police only detect one in 10 crimes, we are talking about possibly 8000 crimes that they could have been responsible for”. D’Orsi concedes that this figure is a “guesstimate”, but the impact of the operation on affected communities has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’m really pleased to see that in some cases neighbours were heard cheering when police arrived,” says D’Orsi. “Some reports said that there was a street party atmosphere…because the major problems had been removed from the borough”.
One of the major community problems that D’Orsi alludes to is drug trafficking. Of the 77 arrested, 46 individuals were charged with 210 drug supply and related offences, leading to the elimination of entire drug chains across borough lines. “Drug dealing goes hand-in-hand with anti-social behaviour,” says D’Orsi, “whether it’s music, cars or people gathering at all hours of the day”. Given the illicit nature of drug dealing, it is a peculiar paradox of the trade that while drug exchanges are conducted in a clandestine manner, the surrounding culture is considerably, if not defiantly, more ostentatious. Invariably, ordinary citizens become collateral. “There’s a fallout from these people meeting,” says the D’Orsi. “Assaults, violence and aggressive behaviour that people are subjected to as they try to live their normal lives”.
Over a year in the making, Puglia was a historic operation not only for its sheer size (2,775 police and staff officers were involved) or the high number of arrests, but it also marked the advent of new safeguarding measures for juveniles. Over the course of the interdiction week; the week in which the dawn raids took place, 18 teenagers were arrested and detained in a dedicated juvenile custody suite. This suite insulated the teenagers from potentially dangerous adults and, as the Safeguard Lead for Operation Puglia DI Leanne Alleyne notes, “…it [gave] them an opportunity by asking “do you want to move away from this?” …Because we knew that some of them are being exploited”.
It is too early to determine the success of this measure, but Alleyne and Puglia’s Partnership Lead Inspector Meredydd Jones, are buoyed by level of the support that they have received from local authorities and third sector bodies. In addition to the installation of a dedicated custody suite, local authorities provided a reception centre staffed by social workers as ‘a place of safety’ for any children found at the addresses who needed to be taken into Police Protection to remove them from immediate risk. They also dispatched neighbourhood officers to affected communities; patrolled areas with high drug activity to deter any potential new entrants vying to fill the market and, “on the flip side of that”, Jones points out, deployed outreach services to “try and engage with the addicts who [have lost] their dealers”. This encapsulates what Alleyne describes as a “big change in [police] culture”. Beyond the execution of warrants and arrests, officers have been encouraged to “think about the wider picture” by assessing the risks posed to individuals hitherto overlooked. Through such partnerships, at-risk individuals like addicts can gain the necessary help from local bodies, which also serves as a preventative measure against future crimes.
Amid rising crime across the country and trenchant cuts at the Met, the UK’s largest police body is undergoing a colossal self-reckoning. As it seeks to come to terms with its evolving role in society, officer numbers are declining in their thousands, which has pushed the Met into a perpetual state of flux. Following a 31-year career, D’Orsi is introspective in his final week as a police officer: “I often ask myself, where does our social responsibility kick in? says D’Orsi. “Sometimes I’ll look at a case and wonder if this is the police’s job?” In the short term, it will become increasingly difficult for the Met to demarcate its own boundaries of responsibility as it extends itself into unchartered territories with new partners. Further afield, what will be left behind for posterity is a new set of ethical quandaries as to what the role of a police officer entails, but this should not dissuade Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Met Police, and other senior figures from pursuing this course of action. The success of Operation Puglia was reflected not only by the high percentage of arrestees that pleaded guilty, but also by the consummate professionalism of the officers, who performed admirably well in trying conditions. After the final arrest was made at around 6:30am on the fourth day of Puglia, I caught up with one of the officers to ask him some rather banal questions about the state of policing and how he was coping with the cuts. Without breaking stride, the officer elegantly summarised in four words what this feature attempted to do in 1000: “It’s what we do”.