Crime agency scores on match fixing but needs backing in drugs fight

Don’t smile – you’re on cops’ camera. Jonathan Brady/PA Archive

It was a big scalp for the NCA: former premier league footballer DJ Campbell arrested as part of a probe into alleged spot-fixing in English football by the National Crime Agency. Campbell’s arrest was one of six by the freshly minted crime agency after an investigation and a sting operation by the Sun on Sunday.

It’s the first high-profile operation for the newly operational NCA – frequently referred to as the “British FBI” – but the agency has already put runs on the board with a number of results, including the break-up of a drugs ring involved in supplying heroin to Birmingham and Bristol.

The NCA’s Bristol Branch Commander Peter Smith said of the operation that the agency had “worked closely with a number of police forces … That co-operation has so far led to the conviction of thirteen individuals linked to this crime group. Working with our law enforcement colleagues we are determined to tackle the organised crime groups responsible for bringing illegal drugs onto our streets and devastating our communities”.

Political football

Far more prominent, for obvious reasons, has been the match-fixing operation which has commanded space in the national press and television.

The reports offered good publicity to the NCA, demonstrating the local, regional, national and international reach of the newly operational agency as it seeks to deliver on its “four pillars” commitment as announced on its website:

  • Pursue – prosecute and disrupt people engaged in serious and organised crime;
  • Prevent – prevent people from becoming involved in serious and organised crime;
  • Protect – increase protection against serious and organised crime;
  • Prepare – reduce the impact of serious and organised crime where it takes place.

And the appearance at court on Friday of four people facing allegations of involvement in corrupt practices in British football is good publicity for the agency, offering cause for optimism, on this front at least, about the policing of organised crime in Britain.

Facing charges: DJ Campbell. Dave Thompson/PA Wire

But for all the early success, there is an obvious need for policy improvement. As The Daily Telegraph reported, the government could already have done something about corruption in sports betting, but has so far chosen not to. Tim Lamb, chief executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, has called for “an appropriate, clear and comprehensive legal and regulatory framework to tackle the match-fixing problem”. He added that compared to anti-doping measures which receive £6m in funding, anti-match fixing receives nothing.

It should be clear to our political servants that there is an urgent need for an integrity unit to be set up to monitor betting activity. This unit would at the very least be able to spot such obvious indications as people placing large bets on matches watched by just a handful of hardy supporters in the lower leagues. The mere existence of such a unit would deter all but the most sophisticated operations – and would make life much easier for the NCA.

Law enforcement’s Sisyphean task

But the NCA’s most thankless law enforcement task is to combat organised drug rings. Police officers at all levels in this country are far better trained and more professional than they have ever been, but policy makers have given them a task that can only be compared to that of the mythological Sisyphus, who was condemned to repeat forever the task of pushing a rock up a mountain – only to see it roll down again.

Here’s how it works at present: law enforcement agencies investigate and make cases against drug traffickers, the prosecutors secure convictions, and some of those involved go to prison. Meanwhile the availability of illegal drugs is not affected one jot, largely because of the law of supply and demand: there is too much easy money to be made, and putting drug traffickers in prison simply allows them to share their expertise and contacts with those who are on their way out of prison.

Policy makers usually take the easy option of chiding police when individual or collective shortcomings are revealed in the losing battle to control organised crime. They should, however, begin to think through the problems associated with organised crime and then address them in a more informed and rational way than currently exists.

On the match-fixing issue, they can act rationally and at little public expense can make a difference. On drug control policy, however, they pretend that they can’t do anything other than ask police to push rocks up mountains. They are probably aware, at some level, of the impossible task they are telling police to undertake on drug law enforcement. But, by continuing to do so, they continue to undermine the “policing by consent” paradigm that once made British policing a model for the rest of the world.

Sadly, our diplomats carelessly signed up to the United Nations Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs in 1988. Since then, we have become ever more enmeshed in networks of international alliances and commitments and obligations, all mutually reinforcing, which almost completely paralyse drug law enforcement in this country and elsewhere.

It’s all very well having a British FBI, and it is rightly applauded when investigations bring in scalps. But without political support and realistic policy targets, particularly when it comes to illegal drugs, it is doomed to fail. It’s time we gave our cops a chance.

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