Limavady may have a drug problem but it is not “some sort of drugs capital”, the top PSNI officer in the town has said.
Area Commander, Chief Inspector Sam Donaldson, in a candid and wide-ranging interview with the Sentinel following last week’s revelation that police have seized more than £1.5 million worth of drugs locally since April 2007, acknowledged the fact that Limavady has a drugs problem but said that the impression that it is a ‘drugs capital’ is misguided. He pointed to other similar sized towns with similar issues around drugs.
The Area Commander, whose officers presided over the seizure of a further £10,000 worth of cocaine in Dungiven on Friday night, spoke about drugs in terms of supply and demand, the impact on the drugs market of successful prosecutions of high profile dealers - whom he described as “scum” - and about how police in Limavady and throughout Northern Ireland are taking on the many layered drug industry - from street level dealers, to those who control an entire town’s drug trade to the international criminals importing narcotics from overseas.
Speaking in response to a Sentinel analysis of drug crime statistics, which revealed that since April 2007, police here have seized almost 87 kilograms of cannabis, just under four kilograms of cocaine and around 17,000 individual ecstasy tablets, Chief Inspector Sam Donaldson said: “Something that probably hasn’t been in the public domain is the fact that there have been 400 seizures in the past four years. Another £10,000 worth of cocaine has been seized on Friday.
“If there is a drugs seizure, we will often give the street value, or we will give the weight. We do not give the weight and the street value together because what that does is encourage drug dealers in our view. If we’re telling the general community what the street value of drugs are, that can have an effect on the market.
“The value of drugs is not something that stays the same. It fluctuates. It is all about the laws of demand and supply - and remember that the price of drugs depends on where you live as well. If you live in a place where drugs are very readily available. If you live in a place like the centre of London, drugs are going to be cheaper because they are more readily available. If you live in a more rural place drugs are going to be that bit more expensive - it is all about supply and demand. Anybody that’s running a business will know the same.
“We have police officers and staff in headquarters that look after the street value of drugs. I can’t decide here that ‘I believe these drugs are worth a certain value’. What happens is that we make a seizure and the drugs are then weighed and that weight is sent to headquarters who then give us a value.”
“Test purchases and undercover work are a big part of tackling the drugs industry. There is a lot of that going on. I wish that we could do the things that comes across on the television, but there is a small percentage of the work that we do that is undercover. I am sure you would understand that a lot of that is absolutely necessary. That authority is governed by the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act, so you can’t just stick on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and go and watch somebody. You have to get the necessary authority to do that and that authority is governed by the legislation. We call it RIPA and it is all about ‘are you justified in doing it?’ and ‘how are you going to minimise the impact on other people?’. So, for instance, imagine we are watching Joe Bloggs and your family’s activities. There is a privacy concern there so it is all about how we minimise that. That creates challenges for us. Of course it would be fantastic as a police service if we could be watching what everybody is doing all the time without any restrictions whatsoever but we live in a society with human rights and all that legislation, so we have to be balanced.
“It depends on the substance. Sometimes you see that we have seized cannabis plants.These are plants that are grown in order manufacture cannabis and they can sometimes take up an entire roof space. You can see a large weight of those or a large amount of those would not be worth as much as a small amount of cocaine. It is very difficult to say that ‘this amount of cannabis equals this amount of money’.
The many layered drugs trade
“When you think of a kilogram, what do you think of? A bag of sugar? Well do you think 88 kilograms is a lot of cannabis. It is and it would fund a lot of people over a long period of time. A lot of the supply is not going to be done with large amounts of cannabis being delivered. It is going to be broken down into tiny ‘user amounts’ and ultimately when it gets to street level drug dealing, it gets down to the value of £10 or £20 or £25. That’s why it is important to try and intervene with these bigger seizures because getting £10 worth of drugs from Joe Bloggs walking across the street - that’s okay - but getting a few kilograms of drugs which we know are going to be broken down and might supply a few dozen people over a long period of time - that’s far better.
“It is a more targeted approach - and I suppose to put it into perspective - there are probably different levels that drug dealers operate at. As a result of that there are different levels that police officers operate as well. The average user, in and around any town - not necessarily talking about Limavady - they are going to be targeted by operational police officers on the beat. Normal police officers going about their jobs, they are going to know there is Joe Bloggs, he is a drug user. Okay, so if I see Joe Bloggs and the circumstances are right, I can search Joe Bloggs and I can recover the drugs that Joe Bloggs has for his personal use.
“Then you’ve got people at the next level. Maybe someone who will supply drugs in and around a town, a town like Limavady, a town like Strabane, a town like Enniskillen. There are people who supply drugs in and around a town at that sort of level. These people are more clever. They don’t carry an awful lot of drugs on them.
“Then you’ve got the next leve againl, the people who import drugs because there are very few drugs grown here. A lot of the drugs here are brought in. That’s changing slightly because we are seeing more and more cannabis factories. A cannabis factory is where people grow cannabis locally - not necessarily to supply in the same town because what happens is people will grow it in one town and they will supply it in another town. It’s easier to get caught if you’re supplying in your own town. That’s a common occurrence but there are people who operate at that next level, who will be importing drugs from England, from Holland, places like that. Those people are targeted by organised groups of law enforcement. The answer to the question of the amount of cooperation that goes on between different organisations is a lot. If drug dealers and suppliers respected national boundaries, we would be laughing. They don’t respect national boundaries.
So there are different levels of dealers, different levels of people who bring the drugs in and obviously police officers who operate at different levels. You’ve got local police officers, you’ve got crime teams who look at the middle level, then you’ve got people at headquarters. You would have heard in the past about the drugs squad. We no longer have a drugs squad but we have people who look at organised crime. They would liaise very closely with other people to work out how to take investigations forward.”
The Area Commander continued: “Something I would like to speak about is the fact that we have changed the focus of our neighbourhood police officers, particularly in relation to drugs. When I speak to people in the community, they tell me that they don’t want neighbourhood officers who just do ‘soft’ policing.
“They want neighbourhood officers who actually do ‘proper’ police work. In other words, they gather information about drugs, they do house searches, they respond to crime, deal with criminals. We have seen the whole focus here over the past couple of years in particular where our neighbourhood officers have shifted back to being operational police officers. When I speak to people in the community, that’s what they say they want.
“For me, a good neighbourhood police officer is not just somebody who puts leaflets through doors. A good neighbourhood officer is someone who gets information, does the house search, recovers the drugs, makes the arrest and proves to the community that they are making a difference.”
Scale of the problem in Limavady
Speaking about the scale of the problem in Limavady, the top cop in Limavady said: “I have always made this point. I am here coming up to three years now and Limavady, in my view, gets an unfair reputation. A lot of people think that Limavady is some kind of drugs capital and I think that’s unfair. I think that there are a number of personalities around the town that are involved in drugs and when people see that the perception then grows that Limavady has a bigger drug problem than any other town. I have worked all over and I can say that Limavady does not have any bigger problems than other towns. Let me be clear, it does have a drugs issue, but so does Coleraine, so does Ballymena, so does Portadown, so does Larne. All you have to do to see that is go to the other towns. Limavady does not have any more of a drugs problem than any other similarly sized town in Northern Ireland.”
High profile dealers
Asked how much of an impact previous arrests and successful prosecutions of ‘high profile’ drug dealers in Limavady can have on the overall drugs trade, and how long it takes before someone else steps in to take their place, the Area Commander said: “I’m not going to talk about individual cases. Sometimes when you talk about people like that it creates more hysteria. When you talk like that about these people it almost creates the idea of some sort of ‘drug lord’ and stuff like that. The less we talk about people like that, the better. I won’t even talk about people like that. They are nothing but scum, nothing but criminals. They are having a very negative impact on the children of the town of Limavady. That is the way we should talk about people like that.
“There are always people, in any town, that are willing to step into somebody else’s shoes. There are people who will very, very quickly say ‘such and such is off the scene, I’ll move in there now’. Don’t forget, as well, that just because someone is in custody, ie someone is in prison, that it is absolutely impossible for them to continue their activities. We operate in the world where communication happens and it is instant.
“So, getting a prosecution against those kind of individuals is tremendous but PSNI, be it in Limavady, Belfast or anywhere else, we recognise that that is not the end of it. You can’t just lie back and say ‘Happy Days! You’re man is away now’ and think that Limavady, or Coleraine, or Newry or wherever it is, is going to change overnight. It won’t because people move in very, very quickly. I talked about the different levels. Somebody will see an opportunity to move from user to supplier, somebody else will see an opportunity to move up from supplier. It happens all the time so it is this constant battle. One of the things I say to officers is ‘if your aim is to rid a town of drugs and have zero drugs, you’ll struggle because there are always people out there willing to break the law.’ Remember, drug dealing is all about money. People want to make money and they move in very very quickly. It is very fluid - like the value of drugs. The people who are involved in dealing drugs, like the value of drugs, can change overnight.”
Specific information needed
“I am always saying to the public ‘don’t make assumptions that we know who is dealing drugs’ and ‘don’t make assumptions that we have specific details in particular.’ If you’re only going to print one thing, then this is my appeal - the registration numbers, clothing that they wore, houses that they are living in, where young people are hanging about, where they appear to be getting their dope. That can change in a day. We need people to keep feeding us that information. I would encourage the public about that all the time. The more specific, the more relevant it is. I was talking about RIPA. It is much, much easier to get a warrant when you have that information. If information suggests that Joe Bloggs is a drug dealer, that’s hard to get a warrant. If I have information that says Joe Bloggs is dealing drugs every Friday night at a specific address, I will get a warrant very quickly because I have got specific information. I would appeal to the public to help us with that.”
He added: “Friday night’s seizure is probably the most significant one we have had for a long time. Ten grand is quite a lot of drugs.”