(Top photo: a police officer holding a seized bag of drugs. There is no suggestion the police officer pictured is responsible for selling any seized drugs or engaging in any criminal activity. Photo: Jake Lewis)
In December of 2014, police inspector Keith Boots was caught with 11 kilos of cocaine stuffed into his washing machine. It was always going to be a tough case to defend.
At his trial, Boots – from Bradford, West Yorkshire – told Leeds Crown Court that he had no idea where the drugs had come from. He had given his keys to builders, he said; someone else must have put them there. But as it happened, Boots spent much of his time wading through bags of drugs as part of his day job. Boots was in charge of an evidence store at Bradford's main police station, where seized drugs were kept before being sent to an incinerator. As is the protocol for the estimated 50 tons of drugs seized each year in Britain, it was his job to ensure that the psychoactive exhibits in his charge were checked and signed off for disposal.
On the surface, Boots – a cop for 25 years and an inspector for the last ten – was fastidious. He sent emails to colleagues voicing his concerns about missing or unlabelled drug bags, and claimed responsibility for installing a CCTV camera in the storeroom. But it was a smokescreen. Instead of disposing of them, he routinely stole large amounts of drugs to re-supply to the streets.
His accomplice was his son Ashley, who had a network of drug dealers on speed dial. The family "recycling" business was a highly active and lucrative one; Ashley contacted his three main dealers more than 1,000 times over a year. When the home was raided, police found a stash of £700,000 worth of cocaine, crack, cannabis, ecstasy and heroin. Last week at Leeds Crown Court, Boots, 55, was found guilty of a number of charges, including theft and intent to supply. Ashley, 30, was found guilty of five drugs conspiracy charges.
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But Keith Boots is not a one-off. As Professor Maurice Punch – a criminologist specialising in police corruption – described it in 2009, the correct metaphor should focus not on "bad apples", but "bad orchards". Despite an end to the days, in the 1980s and 90s, when drug squads were knee deep in the drug trade themselves – and were known as "police gardening clubs" because of their fondness for planting drugs on people – the whiff of corruption lingers on.
The most recent analysis by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found there were over 3,000 allegations of corruption by police officers in 2014, of which only half were properly investigated. Nearly half of 17,200 officers surveyed said they did not trust the confidentiality of internal reporting systems and this deterred whistleblowing.
It is the drug trade, and the vast profits attached to it, that presents the most consistent threat to the integrity of police officers. One of the biggest fears for the police, said the HMIC report, is the passing on of intelligence to Britain's 7,000 organised crime groups, around half of whom are reliant on the drug trade for an income. Police officers are increasingly likely to have direct involvement in the drug market. The report noted "the supply of class A and B drugs [by police officers] is occurring more frequently among a greater number of forces than was reported in 2010".
West Yorkshire has form when it comes to police officers being caught selling the very drugs their colleagues have managed to get off the streets. A detective constable with West Yorkshire police, Nicholas McFadden, used his time working in an anti-organised crime unit to help himself to a police store containing drugs recovered from three major drugs operations before they could be destroyed.
With the help of his brother Simon, he offloaded £1 million worth of heroin, cocaine and cannabis by selling them back to drug dealers, making at least £600,000 in the process. In sentencing McFadden to 23 years, the judge at Leeds Crown Court chastised West Yorkshire police's security at the secret evidence stores, which, despite housing a treasure trove of drugs, guns and cash, "were not operated as robustly as one would expect".
Just last month two West Midlands police officers were arrested by the force's anti-corruption unit for an alleged conspiracy to steal and supply drugs. So how easy is it for police officers to steal from their own stash? I spoke to Michael, a former drug squad detective, about the vulnerabilities of a network of police drug stores that at any one time is handling around 150,000 exhibits across police and customs.
"After a raid, drugs are documented and put in tamper-proof evidence bags, individually numbered and stored as exhibits until they are needed in court," he says. "Everyone who handles the bag should sign it. But like any system where thousands of items are stored, things can get lost. I've turned up at court and they can't find the drugs, and so the case has been thrown out.
"When a court case ends, the judge issues a destruction order on the drugs and they are taken to a specialist drugs store before being sent to be destroyed at a council incinerator, usually overseen by a senior police officer. This is when the system is at its most vulnerable, because the drugs are not needed again."
He says destroying the drugs ends up being such a routine job that officers can become complacent. "One time we started seeing batches of drugs – nine bars of cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and cannabis – being sold at wholesale level, in our own police exhibit bags," he says. "We found out that the inspector responsible for overseeing the disposal of drugs at the council incinerator had been conned into thinking they had been burned when they hadn't. Instead, they were sold onto the black market."
During his years of service, Michael saw several cases of drug-related corruption, including the theft of drug money and seized drugs to be resold on the street; officers warning drug dealers about raids; and the passing of police intelligence about rival dealers.
"If you are involved in drug enforcement, day in, day out, dealing with large amounts of drugs and cash, the opportunity is there, in front of you."
Seeing how much money there is to be made, and knowing how much more lax the disposal of cannabis plants is compared to other drugs, some police officers have decided to jump on the cannabis farming bandwagon themselves.
In 2010, three Merseyside police constables – Sgt Darren Burns and PCs Andrew Bird and Clive French – were sacked and jailed after they raided suspected cannabis factories and sold the seized plants to drug dealers. Last year, Barry Parkinson, another Merseyside police officer, was jailed for being the inside man on a plot to burgle cannabis farms. Also in 2016, PC Hemayat Enayat, an officer with Manchester police who also ran cannabis farms, used his force database to target rival cannabis growers.
Cops are involved at every level of the drug trade, from the female PC with a £500 a week crack and heroin habit and the MBE-awarded Chief Inspector caught with MDMA and mephedrone, to the intelligence unit officer who told an undercover colleague he could help him rob drug dealers, sell drugs and set up a cannabis farm, and the Ferrari-driving West Midlands sergeant whose other job was heading up a gang that ran brothels and sold class A drugs.
The official line when police are caught with their beaks in the psychoactive trough is that these are "criminals masquerading as police officers". But it's not as simple as that. Police corruption is often a symptom of the war on drugs and of drug trade itself, an industry that has the power to turn previously loyal recruits.
"If you are involved in drug enforcement, day in, day out, dealing with large amounts of drugs and cash, the opportunity is there, in front of you," says Michael. "You can see people have done well out of it. And because you are taking drugs or money off a drug dealer, your morals become eroded – you think it's not really a crime. Police are also tactically aware, so they think they're untouchable and their crimes will go undetected."
For specialist police officers who spend their days surrounded by drugs and drug money, the temptation is seemingly huge, despite the oath they took to uphold the law.
A few years ago I interviewed a senior drugs detective who, after over a year of careful surveillance, was over the moon at having busted a drug ring that was making almost unlimited amounts of cash for its overlords, who spent some of that money on flash cars. He said the buzz he got off taking these guys out was like a drug to him. A year later, the detective was under investigation himself, after stealing one of the luxury cars that had been seized from the drug gang.
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