Many people think the sight of lots of police officers patrolling the town is a distant memory in Northampton.
Certainly, that was a popular view when the Chron revealed last week that Northamptonshire Police was reversing years of cuts and adding 30 officers to its ranks to patrol the county’s streets.What many would not know is that there is a unit of officers dedicated to unearthing crimes and handcuffing felons – and they are making a vquite a decent job of it.
The Northampton Proactive Team are a selection of plainclothes police officers who specialise in arresting suspected dangerous criminals and drug dealers in the town.
Over the past 12 months, the six police constables and their sergeant have scared off large numbers of criminals in Northampton and have made 532 arrests, 254 successful vehicle stops and stop searched 615 people, with a majority of positive outcomes.
For a few hours last week, I attached myself to a team of six policemen and witnessed six spontaneous arrests, a dingy crack den and a warning for drugs possession...all before lunch.
The day had started off a little uneventfully, no blue light runs and a few expeditious laps around Semilong – with the aim of trying to find rental cars – which are commonly used by dealers who try to avoid police detection.
But after spotting an exchange in an alleyway, the two officers I was accompanying in an unmarked car soon sprung into action, cornering a man in a row of dishevelled-looking garages.
After a fiery barrage of expletives from him, he was soon handcuffed and pleading for his release in a bid to get home to his girlfriend, who is kept in the dark about his drug use.
Following a strip search, throwing up hypodermic needles and two bags of cannabis, I questioned the smoker – dressed in a zip-
up jacket, trainers and tracksuit bottoms – on his experience with drugs in Northampton.
“There’s a big problem with marketing text messages pushing drugs on us,” he said. “I’ve changed my number, I’m trying to give up.”
It turns out that dealers use marketing strategies to bombard users with text messages enticing them to purchase Class A drugs. This is otherwise known as “running county lines.” In layman’s terms, a drug gang sell their wares to mass numbers saved in their mobile phone contact list.
One constable, who is also an expert narcotics witness, has seen many a message firsthand.
He said: “Marketing text messages actively try to push drugs onto users as much as they can. They will try to do deals for a certain amount of money for a certain amount of wraps or whatever it may be, or they will send texts out saying how great their product is.
“Once users have bought from dealers then [the dealers] will keep bombarding them and bombard everybody on a contact list.”
Following questioning, the officers issued the user with a warning and allowed him to answer his phone, which had been ringing non-stop. He was sent on his way.
Officers are given a free rein to disrupt criminals of any stripe but many of the arrests are drugs-related, either suspicion of drugs offences or having illegal substances foul up their lives.
Someone pulled over for suspicion of carrying drugs can often see them detained over shoplifting - a habit picked up to feed their other habit.
In the midst of my questioning, the point is proved. The officers were called to provide immediate back-up at a first-floor crack den off Wellingborough Road.
After a tense 20 minutes of sitting in the car alone, I was chaperoned into the flat and from a bedroom (for want of a better word), then to where four men were gathered in the front room, Two of them were teenagers from London, who haven’t successfully made it as drug dealers in the big city.
A constable said: “Youngsters from London are looking to get into drug dealing in areas of the city because it’s already well established. But dealers down there would not tolerate somebody doing it on their patch and they have to go elsewhere.
“Quite a lot of them at the moment seem to end up in Northampton but I’m sure it is the same in every town across the UK. You get people branching out from major cities.”
These ones were users of heroin and crack cocaine, a fact given away by the tubs of odour-masking vaseline in the house. It was obvious they weren’t suffering from dry lips.
They were far from healthy, however. The flat was uncarpeted, stained and smelly. Blood-stained bed sheets lined the mattress and copious amounts of used needles rolled about on the floors. The dog living there would have justifiable cause for complaint.
The constable told the Chron that when he was knocking on the door he could see that there were people in there through the window and movement from the curtains.
He said: “There were either people running around inside or looking to come out.”
“But there was a good sort of five-minute delay in getting the door open, which is always a fair indication that something is going on inside.”
The occupant of the address was a user of heroin but was arrested for non-dwelling burglary. He was soon taken into custody.
When questioned, the teens had no links to Northampton and it was apparent that there was about 30 years difference between them and the occupant. This flags up to police signs of cuckooing. ‘Cuckooing’ means drug dealers assuming control of a property where a powerless person lives and use it as a place from which to run their drugs operation.
“It all looks suspiciously like they’re trying to establish yet another drugs house in Northampton where the occupant pays them in drugs,” he adds.
This is a way for dealers to stay off the police radar.
After trying to forget the smokey stench and the smell of unwashed bodies, we got back out on one last patrol.
We hadn’t gone far when we approached three men who were staggering along the street under the weight of a packed holdall each.
On inspection, they were full of steak, coffee and sausages. Breath billowing out in front of them in the cold air, it was evident they weren’t going to a barbecue.
They were suspected of taking them from a nearby supermarket, a undeniably popular enterprise according to the weekly magistrates’ court listings. Another score for the proactive team.
PC Hillyer said this is a great example of the proactive work that the team does.
He said: “Meat has a good resell value and coffee resells for a decent value. The meat hasn’t even had a chance to warm up”
“Nothing has been to has been reported to us, it’s a really good result.
“They would have turned the money into drugs. We have probably saved about 10 more shoplifts today.”
There was time for two more arrests.
We hadn’t gone far when the penultimate man was strip-searched and arrested, again near Wellingborough Road, for carrying an offensive weapon - a knuckleduster - and, once again, drugs. And one last arrest was made in The Mounts, metres from the police station, after officers walked by a wanted man.
In all, six people were arrested in a matter of hours by this small team using their intelligence and experience. But a third tool was a secret weapon, which strengthened their hand yet could be said to undermine them at the same time.
Unheralded perhaps because of its simplicity, was their unmarked car.
The vehicle – probably not a good idea to describe it - gives the team, they reckon, a vital 60 seconds over their uniformed colleagues, which they believe can often be the difference between a good arrest and fresh air.
Also, it allows the team to be right across the town, which even the lankiest old-school bobby would struggle to achieve.
Unfortunately, this is also the unit’s Achilles heel.
People looking to spend the £2 million the Police Commissioner Stephen Mold has for frontline policing would, after witnessing a morning packed with arrests, surely put it all into the proactive team.
However, it arguably still does not solve the general public’s hobby horse issue; more bobbies on the beat. Modern police forces are tasked not only with the prevention of crime but also the prevention of the fear of crime. Crime surveys and therefore crime plans are built on this recently-created principle.
Unfortunately for the proactive team, outstanding though their results are, perhaps the one thing that counts against them is that no-one – including, it is true the drug dealers, car thieves and burglars – sees them going about their business.
With two million pounds for new frontline officers to play with, it is still far from a no-brainer how Mr Mold spends that money.
The old-fashioned warning / reassurance of a constable’s boots or the prodigious arrest rate of a mobile all-action Proactive Team. What would you do?