I Went Stop and Searching in Soho with the London Met
Hanging out with sniffer dogs and nervous drunk people on Saturday night.
Operation Fallon is the London Met's stop-and-search anti-drugs drive. The procedure normally involves a posse of plain-clothed and uniformed police officers, trained sniffer dogs and a mobile body-searching hut patrolling London's pavements and relieving punters of their little baggies of synthesised happiness, jet-blasting narcotics out of the capital one sweaty 0.2 gram wrap at a time. We shadowed a team of the Met's finest on Saturday night in Soho to see if their series of very minor victories are helping them win their war on drugs.
Arriving in Soho, the streets are teeming with everyone from eight-year-old theatre brats straight out of Matilda the Musical, to seedy, pleather-coated pimps flitting from alcove to alcove, reeking of stale smoke and shit perfume. Everywhere we look there's a pub, bar or club packed with people getting pissed. Even the piss trickling down the pavement is pissed.
But the kind of intoxicants we're looking for aren't the watered-down, two-for-a-fiver shots making dancefloors sticky – they're the ones that people stick in their turn-ups or bras, that drug dogs can smell from up to 20 feet away.
“Lock the doors, lads, because sometimes drunk people open them, get in and start dancing around,” says our chaperone, PC Hammond, as we drive off in a giant police van from Charing Cross police station. We notice the sub zero stares as the van crawls through the crowded streets. “Getting stared at like that is part of the job,” says the officer. “The only other time I’ve been stared at like that is on holiday with some friends in Ghana. We were the only white people in the village.”
Race is a sore subject when it comes to the Met's stop and search policies. For decades, they've had to face allegations of racial bias, and last year it was announced that black people are up to 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Last month, on the 20th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, The Metropolitan Black Police Association declared that the Met was still institutionally racist.
Handily for the police, the dogs go on smell, not race. If a sniffer dog "indicates" you (usually by sitting down next to you and staring deeply into your eyes), it gives police reasonable grounds to search you for drugs. The dogs aren't as accurate as everyone thinks they are – they've apparently been known to indicate girls carrying the contraceptive pill or midway through their period – but at least the hounds aren't bigots.
Saying that, the first people the dogs indicate are two teenagers – a black guy and an Asian guy – who come up clean after a frisk down in the mobile searching hut. I don't want to accuse two very cute, very eager labradors of being morally-abhorrent racists, but – if I'm honest – I'm starting to get some pretty strong Michael Richards vibes off them after that piece of baseless victimisation.
“I say legalise the lot,” says one of the officers, out of the blue. His colleague agrees. “Legalise it and tax it,” he nods. I’m surprised and ask why. “If someone wants to turn the sky green and the grass blue, then it's up to them. I can’t see the difference between alcohol and cannabis. The official line is that drugs are under control, but they are not. What we do is a bit like cleaning the drains.”
We drive to Embankment tube station to catch up with some of the other sniffer dog teams. Henry, a beige Labrador who won an award for sniffing when he was three, has sniffed out more than a thousand drug bags. People stream through the gates and smile nervously as Henry sniffs their legs. Some stroke Henry, which instantly makes them look guilty.
“He can pick up a scent from 20 yards away,” says Henry's handler, PC Lark. “It’s easier for him to pick up a scent in a tube station because of the waft of air coming up the escalator from the underground. Imagine the Bisto gravy adverts – it’s just like that.”
Gary, a 33-year-old software designer, walks straight into Henry’s nasal trawling net. He’s searched briefly on the street outside the station and the police find a skunk spliff in his pocket, so they take him into a mobile unit to see if he’s got any more drugs on him. They find nothing else and send him on his way with a cannabis warning. The last one he got was seven years ago, which isn't bad going for a man who carries pre-rolled spliffs with him on public transport.
“I shouldn’t have brought the spliff with me. It really fucking stinks – you don’t even need a dog to smell it. The irony is that I usually smoke hash, which smells a lot less.” I ask Gary if he thinks the police are playing a fair game, as some campaigners say the way that police use sniffer dogs breaches human rights laws. “Well, that’s the way it is; drugs are illegal. But I think it’s hypocritical to have bars lining the river and drag me into a hut for a bit of spliff. I’ve got to go, we're late for Iron Man 3,” he adds, before saying he doesn't want to be photographed because he'd "get sacked". Which is fair enough.
Back in Soho, the officers are patiently dealing with an endless stream of catatonically drunk people asking them directions to "Froth" (Frith) or "Wardle" (Wardour) streets. A Lithuanian in his 30s has just been given a cannabis warning after police found about £15 worth of weed on him. Then it starts to kick off.
Two officers bring in a fat guy with a man bag for the second time. The first time, the dog went wild – presumably because he smelled like a walking Colorado grow-house – but a search came up clean. This time he's got a few bags of skunk on him, so he’s arrested and taken to the police station.
An older guy wearing a flat cap is bustled into the mobile unit. He's been sniffed while standing in a doorway just round the corner and has tried to ditch a small bit of weed and pass his car keys to his friends. But the police get both and immediately suspect that the car, parked across the road, could betheir Monte Cristo goldmine of drug hauls for the night. Quick tip: never try to get rid of something in plain view of the police, it's only going to make you look guiltier than John Dillinger counting cash in a bank vault.
As flat cap man – who, it turns out, is a cab driver – is being searched in the mobile unit, unknown to him, so is his cab. The dog scrambles around the front seats, sniffing the glove compartment. The search is right on a junction and attracting the attention of passers by, who form a circle around the car. Some think it’s being searched because of a bomb. Word goes around that it’s a celebrity’s car or belongs to a big-time drug dealer, and a blonde woman poses for a picture. But all that’s found is a bag of used nappies and barely enough weed for a couple of prison-thin roll-ups.
We take a stroll down the street with another dog because the first one’s nose has got tired – a frankly very embarrassing weakness in dogs that I never knew about. Pedestrians part nervously and suddenly the dog has become interested in a man with a wooly hat. But he’s too quick and the handler temporarily loses the dog in the crowd.
The last pull of the night is a young man in a baseball cap and baggy chinos, caught in an alley called Walkers Court. Narrow streets are a favourite haunt for sniffer dog handlers because people have less room to walk off and it's far more noticeable when they suddenly turn around (which also gives grounds for suspicion). He is surrounded by officers, who check his ID and go through his pockets while a nearby nightclub queue looks on.
Nothing is found, but his eyes look suspiciously like two gigantic moons, so the police take him to the mobile unit to be searched. He’s handcuffed and, like all the other people we’ve seen stopped and searched tonight, goes calmly and without complaint for a more thorough search. The dog was right; he’s got two small snap bags of a white powder and is arrested and taken to Charing Cross police station. He looks very pissed off, understandably.
“Until those people in Parliament change their mind, which they won’t, because they're run by the Daily Mail, we have to carry on arresting people,” says one of the officers. “People forget that, although some drugs are not more harmful than alcohol, they are still illegal, and it’s not us who make the rules.”
The views expressed by individual police officers in this article are not the views of the London Metropolitan police.
Names of those stopped and searched have been changed.
A few more times we've been on ride-alongs: