High-Tech Sherlocks For Britain

If he were solving cases today, Sherlock Holmes wouldn't worry about a plodding Inspector Lastrade looking over his shoulder.

Today the legendary sleuth would have to contend with a squad of eager young detectives determined if necessary to pursue Professor Moriarty and his ilk all the way from England to Eastern Europe. They could pelt Holmes with facts they had gleaned from an electronic intelligence network. And they would use secure mobile phones to keep in touch with their colleagues in Britain and beyond.

The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has decided to fight crime the American way, choosing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as its model for a new national agency with orders to roll back the rising number of drug-running and other offenses.

A leaked British government report last year said people were more likely to be victims of violent crime in England and Wales than almost anywhere else in the developed world. Burglary and stolen cars were the biggest problems. "Contact" crimes - robbery, assault, and sexual attacks on women - were running at rates comparable to the United States. (Homicides, however, were down.)

For the first time, a police force covering all of England and Wales and with a mandate to operate in the countries of continental Europe, will combat organized crime.

Some 1,450 specially selected detectives of the newly formed National Crime Squad (NCS), headquartered in London, began operating April 1.

The changes, ordered by Home Secretary Jack Straw, are designed to stop criminals from playing the six poorly coordinated regional crime squads against one another. Instead, criminals will face a well-funded national police agency with close links to forces in continental Europe.

The NCS will have the help of a reorganized National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), which also owes a lot to the FBI's experience in tracking offenders across state lines.

NCS Director-General Roy Penrose estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his force's work will be drug-related. He says he is already establishing cross-border ties with other European police forces.

"We had to match the changing pattern of British crime," Mr. Penrose says. There are as many as 200 organized British criminals and their gangs, he says, and "keeping track of them will inevitably lead us into other European countries." Modern telecommunications and easy travel mean that British criminals have little trouble quitting the country for the Continent.

Penrose says a large number of British criminal gangs involved in the drug trade have moved to the Perigord region of south-central France. Others use the Costa del Sol in Spain as a base of operations. "In both areas they are able to blend in with expatriate Britons who live there legitimately," he says.

As an example of the kind of cross-frontier cooperation he wants the NCS to pursue, Penrose cites the case of Curtis Warren, a drug dealer who originally operated in England, then moved to the Netherlands to escape a rival gang. Mr. Warren was apprehended there, and last year was given a 12-year jail term.

By switching to an FBI-style approach to crime-busting, the British are abandoning a tradition going back 150 years. The first police forces were strictly local. There are still 43 of them (Scotland Yard, serving London's metropolitan area, is the most famous) and they jealously guard their "patches."

Also, Britons still harbor a nostalgic image of the "bobby on the beat" - an officer wearing a dome-shaped blue helmet and a genial smile, and with only a short truncheon for self-defense.

The 1960s TV series "Dixon of Dock Green," with an avuncular actor playing the local constable, is still regarded by many Britons as the epitome of policing. Currently there is one officer pounding the pavement for every 8,000 citizens. Even today, police officers on the beat carry no guns. A rising number, however, are being trained as marksmen, and special-weapons-equipped "reaction units" are available for dealing with armed criminals.

Friendly local policing will continue, says Home Secretary Straw, but before the Blair government came to power nearly a year ago, he and his leader warned that fighting drug-related crime nationwide would be a top law-and-order priority.

Last September, Straw got backing from London police, who commissioned a study that concluded their "current ability to investigate crime is in serious decline."

In one respect, the NCS may suffer a handicap compared with the FBI. The American crime-fighting agency has its own integrated intelligence-gathering arm. For the moment, at least, the NCS and NCIS will operate alongside each other and under separate command. Penrose has offered assurances that, like the FBI, the NCS will aim to employ only detectives who are "untouchable." This may prove easier said than done.

Penrose and other police chiefs admit that existing forces harbor significant numbers of corrupt officers whom current regulations make it difficult to discover and punish. Penrose says British gangs in the past have used disgraced former police officers to obtain inside information on the activities of regional crime squads.

Sounding more like Eliot Ness than Inspector Lastrade, he says: "We are taking special measures to weed out corruption, and I shall be absolutely ruthless in dealing with dishonest officers."

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