Plan forms to fight organized crime with a 'British FBI'

Britain's biggest shake-up of policing in 40 years aims to unite separate crime units into a comprehensive body.

Turf wars, deadly rivalry, mutual suspicion, power struggles, and squabbles over money. The criminal demimonde is territorial and antagonistic - yet this is just the crime fighters we're talking about, not the criminals themselves.

Britain's effort to tackle organized crime has become so disjointed that the government is planning a major revamp that will create a new elite cadre of crime-busters, already dubbed the "British FBI."

The move, which amounts to the most comprehensive shake-up of British policing for 40 years, is an attempt to pool officers, investigators, technical experts, and customs officials into a single body to take on the international criminal empires whose activities cost the British economy an estimated $70 billion a year.

The prime targets will be drug cartels, people traffickers, fraudsters, and money launderers. Terrorists will not be on the hit list, remaining the preserve of the intelligence services and police.

"Crime organizations work as one cohesive unit, and we have got to do the same," said Prime Minister Tony Blair as he unveiled plans to create the Serious Organised Crime Agency, or SOCA, over the next two years.

The government is also looking at appointing specialist prosecutors to fight the top legal teams hired by the moneyed crime lords.

"We're not going to beat organized crime if we simply work in the way we worked 15 or 20 years ago," the prime minister said.

But some experts warn that the war against organized crime will take a lot of effort, and that bureaucratic reshuffles may not end the sharp-elbowed rivalry and go-it-alone approach that some crime fighters have hitherto adopted.

"The war against organized crime is not going to be won. No one has won it," says criminologist Dick Hobbs, a professor at England's University of Durham. "Hopefully this will have an impact, but there will still be turf wars as to who deals with what specific problems."

Pressure on police to crack down

Pressure for action has, however, been mounting for months, if not years.

Statistics show that markets for crack cocaine and heroin in Britain are now worth £3 billion, or $5.6 billion, a year, and that half of all crime is perpetrated by drug users.

One police chief was moved last week to suggest state provision of hard drugs as one way to cut crime and eliminate the profitability of the drug business.

As for people trafficking, the nefarious practice has shot to prominence in the past five years, with grisly tales of "snakehead" gangs who routinely transport human cargoes halfway around the world on hazardous odysseys, and then brutally exploit them as cheap labor.

An estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants enter the EU every year, the majority through people-trafficking rings. Just last week, 19 Chinese workers thought to be smuggled migrants drowned while gathering shellfish off the northwest coast of England.

The power of one

It is these growing trends that have persuaded the authorities that organized crime should be taken as seriously as terrorism, posing a formidable threat to social cohesion and economic stability.

"Crime has changed," says Mark Oaten, an MP and spokesman on home affairs for the opposition Liberal Democrats. "It's become much more complicated in the last two or three years.

"You didn't used to have big international drug trafficking and people trafficking taking place, and you didn't even hear of Internet pornography," he adds.

Crime may have changed, but crime fighting in Britain has not. Currently, separate bodies address the drug trade, criminal intelligence, fraud, customs and immigration issues, and other cross-border crime.

The idea is to bring all the elements together under one roof.

"It's a good idea," says Gloria Laycock, director of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College in London. "These agencies are better than they used to be at talking to one another, but that takes up time and energy, and there are different data systems, procedures, different technology.

"Merging into one makes a lot more sense," she says, adding that organized crime groups "won't necessarily be quaking in their boots, but it will make the system trying to tackle this crime much slicker."

The problem is that many of the to-be-merged units jealously guard their territory and are suspicious of even sharing information, let alone offices, with other agencies who are often seen as competition.

Mr. Hobbs says "enormous suspicion and conflict" have soured relations between the various agencies in the past, and there will probably continue to be tussles over who takes credit for successes and blame for failures, and how budgets are apportioned.

A second issue involves the preference for local policing in Britain. National bodies are seen as unwieldy, elitist, and out of touch with local realities.

It's not as easy as in the movies

Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation professional body, is uneasy about how the new superagency will fit into the policing picture.

"Elitism has no place in British policing," she says, expressing concern that the cream of the police force would be skimmed off for SOCA to the detriment of the 43 local police forces.

"We must not get carried away with the glamorized movie image of an FBI offering a total solution to crime - the reality is often quite different."

Hobbs said the task facing the new unit would be formidable, and he questioned whether the restructuring would have a big impact.

"That's not been the experience of the US," he says.

"Organized crime is not going to go away. There is a demand for cheap labor, a demand for recreational drugs. Unless you do away with that demand, you are always going to get forces coming along to supply that."

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