Sunday, March 04, 2007

Interview with Eddie Ellison, former head of the Met drugs squad

Below is a complete and unedited version of an interview with Eddie Ellison, long serving drug law enforcer, Transform friend and Patron, who died in January this year. You can read Transform's tribute to Eddie here . This interview is from the early days of Transform in 1999 and was printed in the member's newsletter 'the Transformer' which has now been replaced by a monthly email newsletter.

It is interesting looking back at this interview just how ahead of his time Eddie was, and his comments seem even more pertinent today as the criminal justice crisis has continued to worsen. His influence on the evolution of Transform's message and our growing confindence in the intervening years in clear to see. One of my favorite quotes is this one:

"thoughts of legalisation are not radical. To publish them is not radical. To discuss alternatives, with the general benefit of all of the population as an aim, is not radical - its being an active part of the community. To demand that government consider the effects of their legislation is not radical - its called democracy. To look for a reduction in crime through a change in policy is not radical - its logical. To look for a supportive and educational structure as opposed to condemnation and prosecution is not radical - its compassionate."

An interview with Eddie Ellison. the Transformer March 1999.

Eddie Ellison retired in 1993 as a Detective Chief Superintendent having served thirty years with the Metropolitan Police. He held senior CID posts at many London police stations including Paddington Green, Harrow Road and Brixton. He served mainly in Specialist Operations with two years at Heathrow Airport on drug smuggling, two years detecting drug importation and distribution in London and was the operational head of Scotland Yard's Drug Squad for the years 1982 to 1986. He concluded his career as head of Specialist Operations Department Crime Policy Unit and was on the ACPO Crime Committee Working Group that re-deployed the Regional Crime Squads and Drugs Wings, later the National Crime Squad, and gave birth to the National Criminal Intelligence Service. He has had a series of articles published in the national press advocating legalisation and has featured in a number of television and radio debates critically examining the government's drug policy. He is now a freelance writer.

When did you decide that legalisation was the way forward?

Transform have been good enough to give me a list of questions to answer and I'll grab this first opportunity to clarify that my 'legalisation' does not mean support or approval for drug use or abuse. I, and probably the majority of the public, want the lowest possible level of drug use and the least detrimental effect on all our lives by any policy aiming to achieve this. I find that a policy of prohibition fails to deliver reductions in drug use or supply, provides incentives for increased crime, profits for criminal endeavour and an environment of mistrust and ignorance that is socially and educationally counter productive. Legalisation provides a better policy to support, educate and reduce harm, eliminate the motive for over half society’s crime, reduce the profits, power and danger of the criminal supply chain, quality control the product and exchange condemnation and persecution for compassion and understanding.

My personal view started early. I went on the Drug Squad in 1971, replacing officers who were suspended on allegations of re-cycling and perjury. I had no previous drug work experience. It was a specialised field and a personal friend used her contacts to gain me access to Release, Phoenix House and a number of re-hab agencies who gave me a wider view. This research is not unusual when entering a specialism. It was done at different times in extradition, illegal immigration and even computerisation. From the outset I found it difficult to identify cannabis users (this was the early seventies) as criminals. Indeed many arrested distributors were at that time, astonishingly, almost philanthropic.

Much later, attempting to make plans to reduce crime within my areas, it was clear that there was evidence of growing crime rates motivated by drug costs. We know that illegality and enforcement are responsible for continuing price maintenance and criminal profit. It would be unethical not to consider any alternative that offered a better chance of success. My views were strongly held, and widely known, before I was invited to the operational command of the Central Drug Squad.

How did you cope with holding the views you do when you served?

There was no difficulty at all. The Squad is targeted at the higher level of importation and major distribution. Whether it be drugs, antiques, taxation, banking or any other aspect of legislation, there will always be individuals who see prohibition as a profit opportunity. Whatever your views on possession and use and ineffective policy, the reality today is that the majority of high level drug supply is dirty, dangerous, profitable, competitive and generally casual about quality control. The motives are anything but an approval of benign use or compassion. The motive is profit. I have never lacked motivation to curtail such activities.

Holding the position ensured more discussion of alternative policies, of co-operation with other agencies and refined targeting to those who clearly justified it. Support and training towards wider knowledge, more understanding, more integrity and better professional ability do have a direct effect on internal policy and squad behaviour. I hope somebody noticed a reduction in high profile but ineffective targets, pop stars, sportsmen, media personalities; a reduction in enthusiastic morning searches for possession charges; a reduction in complaints of overzealousness on the squad; a concentration on supply prevention; closer co-operation with Customs and an increase in admissions at Crown Court due to more professional presentation and evidence gathering. Personal views can support developments, they don't hinder.

During my later years I was delighted to be on the group that formally documented the guidelines of the 'possession' cautioning procedures, although cautioning was already growing as an alternative to prosecution.

What do you think the police's view of drug policy is now?

A heavy question deserves a heavy answer. If I use trite terms it's because I know none better. It is the job of government to bring in legislation and the job of policing to enforce that. Police do have flexibility to enforce or ignore legislation according to priorities but generally they reflect government and public opinion. There has always been a 'feedback loop' in the chain and police can, and do, feed back through the Home Office their difficulties in enforcement and their practical experiences. Breathalyser law, dangerous dogs law and even controls on football travellers have all been subject to feedback and appropriate changes. The dilemma this time is that it is simply not a matter of feeding back difficulties. The suggestion is that the legislation, and the background policy, is totally wrong in approach.

This presents a major difficulty. I, and probably most of you, don't wish to live in a country where the police decide on legislation. I rather prefer that police are seen as the servants of public and government. Most senior police officers also believe that this should be the balance and we have no precedent for a police service actually suggesting to the legislature that it got it wrong. The feedback loop carries discussion and opinion back through the Home Office. It requires little imagination to conclude that those discussions must be private. The appointment of a Drug Czar should allow more open discussion and more points of view to be heard.

What influence do the police have on policy review?

I think I've pretty well covered that. There is another way police actually influence the speed of policy change. An informed, responsive police service can bend to changing public opinion before any change in legislation. The growth of cautioning in respect of any particular crime reflects a number of factors, one being public opinion. When cautioning becomes the norm for any offence then the individual policeman takes the next step by verbally warning and finally by ignoring offences. Examples of this have been abortion, street betting, unlawful sexual intercourse and begging. In the field of drug possession, particularly cannabis, we are already travelling that road.

What do you think of the job that Hellawell has done so far?

I'm very biased. A senior police manager has many differing priorities and many factors influence the decisions. Drugs policing guarantees potential corruption, more and more resource demand and more perceived worries for the local population through media reports. Can you wonder that most managers fight shy of getting involved and minimise commitment. Hellawell chose to get fully involved, even at the top of his career tree and long before the government considered having a Czar. He inaugurated an ACPO national drug conference where the alternatives were nationally discussed, unheard of a decade earlier. He spoke in revolutionary terms to the media. The man has bottle and he a good head on his shoulders. I won't bore you with the work he did at previous constabularies but he has no reputation for avoiding confrontation, he achieves an end product.

The job description was not that of drug dictator. He was given no powers other than research, co-ordination and persuasion. He, and Mike Chance, have done all the expected liaisons, all the right press releases and all the responses to questions. They have done one action that defines their integrity in my eyes. They have set a series of performance measurements and indicators, more will come. To achieve consideration of any alternative you have to prove current failings. If you have any intention of totally retaining the status quo then you do not put measures into place that could indicate failings. Then again - I may totally have misjudged him!

John Grieve said, "If the drug problem continues advancing as it is at the moment, we're going to be faced with some frightening options. Either you have a massive reduction in civil rights or you have to look at some radical solutions. The issue has to be - can a criminal justice system solve this particular problem?"

I do not misjudge John. I know of nobody in policing more ethical, more able and more committed. For many years we debated the relative effects of prohibition and legalisation. When he made his presentation at the ACPO Drug Conference he placed a note on his office door, "I did not say legalise cannabis". He presented an imaginative and coherent debate about all the alternatives. Legalisation is an alternative. The police service can and does consider it, the media can and does consider it, the public can and does consider it - it appears a matter of shame that our elected representatives cannot. The party machines, of both major parties, are so afraid of it.

The basis of policing in this country is 'policing by consent'. If government and police do not have the consent of the majority of the public then the public cannot be policed and a law cannot be enforced. I can find no underlying reason other than this for the government's avoidance of debate. If the public were fully informed about the legalisation alternative then they would not continue to support prohibition with its damaging side effects. As for John's outstanding issue - no, a criminal justice system can only exacerbate this particular problem. UK policing is common sense and simple. The level of enforcement required to buttress the current policy into effectiveness is no style of policing recognised in this country.

Why don't more serving officers voice a radical view of drug policy?

Can you hear the laughter when I say "It's not proper!" If a policeman addressed the press and demanded the return of hanging, demanded tribunals instead of juries or the abolition of PACE then, as the noise of dissent died down, the refrain would be "It's not proper". Senior policemen, astonishingly, do actually care that the balance is kept between the legislature and the enforcement role. Private lobbying, changes of priorities and closer liaison with other remedial agencies are all proper routes to gentle changes of direction and are 'proper' within the constitution. My views were known and strongly held for about twenty years but unheard beyond internal debate and at the Police Staff College. Most policemen do think, they do care, they do have opinions, but most people would rather they stayed within their defined, and proper, role in society.

The Metropolitan Police and ACPO Crime Committee both formed working groups to identify the best policy in the field. Because views were strongly held supporting both major alternatives the debate proved inconclusive. In London the Commissioner lost patience and decided, properly, to lead and came down on the side of the status quo. Policing, by its very nature, is conservative.

Do you know many serving officers who hold radical views but don’t speak out?

I know an officer who believes he was abducted by aliens, one who is sure he is psychic, one who has been a foster parent to many serving prisoners' children, many radicals there. What's radical about legalisation? If your sole worry is a lack of policemen openly debating legalisation it probably reflects the few actually experienced in this field rather than any conspiracy of silence.

Do you think prohibition creates more problems for black people?

Ouch! This on top of being 'institutionally racist' if someone thinks I am. George Orwell thought it would be policemen who would be the 'thought police' but it transpires that they are the first group ever to be automatically convicted by subjective perception. This is John Grieve's current specialism and I'm five years out. Honesty demands recognition that records of 'stop and search' - the source of many arrest for possession charges - show that black youths are more likely to be stopped relative to their actual resident numbers than white. The equation is far from simple as many other factors come into play. We can all be sure, however, that prohibition does create more problems for all youth. The clearly identified antidote to drug use and abuse is to survive to the age of twenty-five. Prohibition is a friction between youth and police, more so between black youth and police. Its currently a friction between young and mature people and sometimes between individual rights and the rights of the community. My overseas experience is limited but I know in Barbados its a cause of friction between black youth and black policemen. Like so much in life, it isn't a choice of black or white as opposites, its a choice of the most comfortable grey bit.

Why is police corruption so regularly linked with drug work?

That's true the world over. Can you blame senior officers for doing less in this field than demanded by some virtuous sections of society? It's too obvious to identify all the money rocking around the drug supply route but it plays a part. I have a personal favourite reason. In all other crimes there are three interested parties. In theft, robbery, rape, fraud, etc., there are victim, police and baddie. If any two get together for whatever reason to bend the law the other interested party has a good chance of spotting it. If baddie and police agree a less active pursuit of justice the victim feels betrayed and complains. If baddie and complainant agree financial terms the police get uptight and look for conspiracy charges. But in drug work there are only two agencies. If money motivates baddie and policemen to agree on terms there is no third party to notice. It benefits a baddie to pay for non-prosecution and, if finance is the motivation for the policemen, then few outside observers would notice a lack of arrest or prosecution. The third party role has to be assumed by police management. A variety of leadership tactics can combat corruption potential but history has taught us that in drug policing, it is only a matter of time. Having briefed, questioned and selected appropriate officers for the drug squad their first training session was from me, on corruption and its personal and professional effects.

I'm sure that you would want me to touch on the corruption of planting, fitting up and such. In the sixties such activity motivated the birth of Release and trained many of today's best defence counsel. The world of policing, its professionalism and ethics, have changed over my career years. So has the social and legal awareness and expectation of the public. For any policemen wishing to produce arrest figures, and such officers do exist, I think we can all agree that finding someone actually in possession of a controlled drug requires very few grey cells. I personally don’t know of any corner of the UK where proper arrests would be difficult, indeed that proliferation is part of the argument for legalisation. Even at the top level of distribution I have to tell you that operational units are awash with intelligence and selection of targets is often done on a weighting factor system. You have to limit the numbers of police deployed in the field or nobody will be looking at other crimes. I can tell you that I view allegations of planting in today’s environment in a similar vein as suggestions that each and every unlucky E victim was dropping their very first tab. Its comforting to those who wish to believe it, but logically and statistically unlikely.

Should we have an amnesty on arrests for drug law offenders?

What do you think the process of change should be?

Sorry, I cheated and put two questions together. Remember my objective - ‘The least possible level of drug use with the least detrimental policy effect on the community’. Arguing for legalisation is easy, its logical, the data supports it, anyone giving more than a token thought to it would concur. I’m deliberately not repeating the arguments since Transform, and others, have documented them clearly. It’s getting widely heard and considered that’s the problem. The argument holds good across the board for all drugs up and until you actually consider implementing legalisation. At that stage you have to consider the individual drugs separately. To abandon current legislation, through amnesty, without providing the transfer of resources to support, harm reduction and education is a recipe for chaos.

There are two key provisos. Change must be multilateral, the UK cannot go without Europe. Resources moved from enforcement to prevention and education may be sufficient within the UK but would be a free handout to all the continent if we went alone. Change must be structured and monitored, drug by drug. This does not mean that the UK cannot lead the debate, cannot contribute to knowledge, cannot show integrity, tolerance and compassion.

Each drug requires a different means of legalisation. It’s a well rehearsed answer to say, cannabis - as alcohol, heroin and cocaine - treatment centres with mandatory education and testing, speed and E - age controls, etc.. Let me surprise you. Yes I would legalise cannabis without hesitation but my first priority would be heroin. Its a smaller target group, more measurable, less costs involved, more returns in relation to reductions in crime, more easy to portray as health education and prevention and less likely to be adversely portrayed as rampant liberalisation and support for drug use. It has the added benefit of less likelihood of dramatic increases in users after legalisation and we have the benefit of much research into effects, appropriate levels of purity and a ready alternative drug. It would be much easier to argue legalise heroin as a first policy change than cannabis. Success in that field would be more likely to presage other changes than the traditional ‘soft’ option of cannabis.

What would you do if you had the Czar’s job?

Figure out how to spend over four times my current income? I do strongly believe in legalisation as a better policy and cannot understand why the government and the public cannot tie together the crime rate directly attributed to the current policy and the failings of that policy.

As Czar I would initially document and publish the resources currently deployed in order to cost current and future options; document and publish the strands and aims of current policy; ensure that government openly agreed, supported and stood for the published strategy; identify, document and publish performance measures against the current aims; protect the integrity of the results and, if they indicate a measured failure of current acknowledged government policy, suggest costed logical alternatives that could be progressively implemented against the performance measures. I wonder if anybody has thought about doing that.

What do you think we should be doing to bring about positive change?

Change has been happening for over a decade. Change is not the initial objective now. There is a respectability in the legalisation argument. I’ve answered the questions as you set them out but they indicate a lack of confidence in what has been, and is being, achieved. Policemen think and have come to different conclusions than you imagined. The thoughts of legalisation are not radical. To publish them is not radical. To discuss alternatives, with the general benefit of all of the population as an aim, is not radical - its being an active part of the community. To demand that government consider the effects of their legislation is not radical - its called democracy. To look for a reduction in crime through a change in policy is not radical - its logical. To look for a supportive and educational structure as opposed to condemnation and prosecution is not radical - its compassionate.

Twenty years ago the only groups that voiced legalisation were the music industry and a 'drop out' libertarian clique. Today the arguments are supported by academics, by judges, by physicians, by 'heavy' newspapers, by organisations as diverse as the BMA and the WI, by the majority of the visual media (TV and the net), by the changing practices of the police service, by the sentencing changes of the courts and, not least, by your good selves. Please don’t object if I describe you as respectable but the argument is totally respectable. The objective is not continuing change, that’s already in hand. The two current objectives are the spread of accurate knowledge across the wider social spectrum and the build up of public opinion until government sees it as beneficial to emerge from the protective 'status quo' argument. We have no need to demand a change of law. If we achieve a change of public opinion does anyone doubt governments immediate ability to respond?

Any last thoughts?

Yes. Each Transformer carries an interview with the rolling title 'On Drugs' but today looks more like 'On Policing'. Only a tenth of police time is anything to do with crime, most is in service activities, from traffic to crowd control and from accidents to reassurance patrolling. Within that small crime activity hardly any is specifically devoted to drugs policing. The majority of officers see it as a total waste of time, as an invitation to the problems of complaints and an invitation to excessive paperwork on process and exhibits. Most managers see it as corruption potential and a bottomless bucket into which manpower can be sucked. The normal response is specifically to use a limited, trained manpower resource called a drug squad. This is not to give greater priority to drug work but to make sure that such work is limited to those few officers with tight supervision, control and leadership. That leadership generally targets supplies rather than possessors. Most police / drug activity is now organised with other co-ordinated agencies, referral, education and support are the key words. Don't get paranoid, most policemen do think and are very happy to avoid making drug arrests.

No comments: