It was interesting watching the enforcement of Operation Manhattan by North Wales Rural Crime Team last week. From updates regularly unfolding on Twitter, the operation dealt with badger crimes and the associated animal welfare issues of the dogs used in the brutal ‘sport’ of digging and baiting badgers. From the information in the public domain three men were arrested on the day of the searches and a fourth has been interviewed. A ‘wild’ animal, probably a captive fox or badger, was recovered from a locked shed, and 42 dogs were seized.
This was a massive undertaking and was an excellent example of the police working in partnership with other agencies. I have no idea what the evidence is, and in any event that could not be published before the conclusion of any court case, but having organised a similar operation for raptor persecution involving 50 police officers and other staff, it is a daunting task. For those who are not too acquaint with policing (and some armchair detectives who frequently criticise the police at every opportunity despite not knowing the difficulties) let me have a guess at the work that the North Wales Police Rural Crime Team undertook. The team is led by Rob Taylor, recently retired sergeant from the team and now the team manager. The rest of the team comprises a detective constable on secondment, three constables and three community support officers.
Most police operations are intelligence-led, and the intelligence for this operation may have originated from the police, National Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit, RSPCA, League against Cruel Sports or from any combination of these agencies. Invariably search warrants are required, and these will only be granted by a sheriff or magistrate who is convinced by current intelligence that there are reasonable grounds for warrants to be used. In this operation I’d guess at least four search warrants would be required.
Four search warrants probably means at least four locations to be searched (in the Tayside case to which I referred there were seven, plus about 30,000 acres of moorland, though police powers for the land were sufficient and this did not require a warrant). This probably means at least four police officers to each address, assuming they have to be searched simultaneously, which would most likely be the case here since word could spread quickly and evidence is likely to disappear. Two of the officers would be involved with the search, probably with the assistance of specially search-trained officers, one of whom would be an exhibits officer (or in Scotland, a productions officer) to log the productions. Two might also be involved assisting at the address but would be available to detain or arrest the suspect if and when that became necessary.
In an operation of this magnitude wildlife crime officers from other forces may be asked to assist, as may investigation support officers from NWCU. I note that in this case dog section officers were on hand as was a firearms unit. The request for their assistance would depend on the intelligence and any background knowledge of the suspects.
It is always important to provide a court with the best evidence possible. In this operation it is likely that the recovery of any interesting items, the dogs and the conditions in which the dogs were kept would be video-recorded and/or photographed.
In a case like this it would be anticipated that dogs would need to be examined and probably seized. This would require a vet, who could move between addresses, and probably two RSPCA inspectors at each address to deal with and remove the dogs.
So we possibly now have an idea of the considerable staffing required for the job, but of course transport is also required. It would be easy to have a van for each locus and to pile everyone for that address on board. That’s certainly not suitable as officers carrying out different tasks are likely to need their own transport as some may need to leave the address before others or even move between addresses. In many of these operations vehicles are hired for the duration of the job. RSPCA would also have their own transport with cages to remove animals, whether dogs, foxes or badgers.
There must be communication between the different teams, and indeed to whoever is controlling the operation, who might be at a police station rather than at any of the addresses. In the Tayside operation I was based in the nearest police station to the operation along with a uniformed inspector (I had the knowledge but, as a retired police officer, little or no authority, while the inspector had the authority but little knowledge of wildlife crime or associated wildlife or animal welfare legislation). Every team member must therefore know how to contact the other team members. The officer in charge must also be considering the welfare of those in the teams and work out, if possible, how to get some refreshments to them. There are seldom complaints from team members as they are normally so busy they hardly notice that 10 or 12 hours have passed without a bite to eat. (As well as on wildlife jobs I also experienced this during my three years on the drug squad). Unfortunately in the current climate finance must also be a consideration, though I suspect in this type of investigation overtime payments are the least of the participants’ considerations. I’m sure they just want a satisfactory conclusion and maybe some extra time off in lieu of overtime.
The day starts, normally very early, with a briefing by the officer in charge. Every team member must know exactly what he or she has to do and, equally importantly, if there is anything that he or she must not do. At the end of the operation it is good to have a debrief, though it is much harder to get everyone back together again as some tasks take much longer than others. The debrief allows interesting information and intelligence gleaned to be shared. Importantly it is a chance to pick up on what aspects of the operation went particularly smoothly and what went wrong and can be modified for future operations.
The searches are only the beginning of the operation. Items seized are likely to be dogs, mobile phones, computers, laptops, ipods, tablets, photographs, video footage, relevant books and articles on the subject of the search, cages, blood and hair samples, any documents showing ownership of the dogs, home remedies for treatment of injuries and any documentation that might show veterinary treatment. Forensic work on some of these exhibits/productions may take weeks or even months. RSPCA invariably take on the difficult job of looking after the dogs. This is likely to include veterinary treatment, which is unlikely to be recoverable from the owners of the dogs.
Suspects have to be interviewed. The position with suspects is different in England and Wales compared with Scotland but it would be unlikely, unless absolutely necessary, for the suspects to be kept in custody for the court. This forces the prosecutor’s hand into making a decision on sometimes limited and hastily-prepared evidence on whether to prosecute. It is generally better to put a complete case forward once all evidence has been collated. Generally with wildlife crime cases the police would be in consultation with the prosecutor at an early stage in any case and could be directed appropriately.
I was really impressed that North Wales Police kept the public abreast of the progress of this operation through Twitter. It is yet another aspect of an already busy day for the officer in charge, but is an incredibly clever strategy for garnering public support and information, so important in trying to get a successful conclusion in wildlife crime cases. Most operations of this sort are run equally efficiently; it is just that the public are not aware of them. Full marks in any case to North Wales Police, to Rob and his team and to the other participating organisations. I know that police forces are struggling financially but others would do well to follow the North Wales Police example of creating an extremely competent and dedicated rural crime team.