Ten years of Operation Trident

Ten years ago, the Met launched Operation Trident, an attempt to tackle black-on-black gun crime. Yet London firearms offences are still on the rise. Rebecca Taylor looks back on a hit-and-miss decade, Danielle Aumord talks to a gang member and Simone Baird speaks to others staring down the barrel on the capital‘s frontline

  • Ten years of Operation Trident

    Neezy of the Younger Peckham Boys

  • In March 1998, after a string of shootings in Lambeth and Brent, the Met Police launched its anti-gun crime unit, Operation Trident. A decade on, Trident has been used as a blueprint for tackling gun crime country-wide. Yet last year firearm offences in the capital rose by 4 per cent: there were 3,459 ‘gun-enabled’ crimes in 2007, including 30 gun murders; of those, nine victims were aged 18 or under. So is Trident really working?

    ‘Gun crime began to escalate following a series of south London gang executions in the late ’90s,’ says Tony Thompson, a former Time Out news editor who has written several books on gang culture. ‘Previous Met operations were seen as putting down the black community. Trident, from the start, was intelligence-led and had strong links with the black community.’

    When I came to cover Thompson’s patch for TO in 2002, the Met was claiming success for containing gun crime in Brent, an area dubbed the ‘gun capital of the UK’ by the press. Officers from Harlesden told me that those involved in gun crime were from ‘a criminal minority’. But that wasn’t my experience visiting the area’s Stonebridge estate, where one young resident told me: ‘Seeing a shooting round here is like spotting a bus.’

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    Time Out reports on Trident in 2001

    Since then, a succession of other areas have worn the unwanted mantle of ‘gun capital’, most recently the Brixton/Clapham/Streatham area of south-west London thanks to the shootings of three boys in one week last February. But Trident has had significant successes, including the conviction in 2004 of Owen Clark, aka Father Fowl, a drugs kingpin whose detention is reckoned to have been a major factor in the decline in shootings in north-west London.

    Trident now has around 300 officers. As well as conducting its own investigations, it helps local police investigate shootings and collate intelligence, and works with customs and immigration officials. Although it predominantly deals with Afro-Caribbean and black British communities, discussions are underway to examine setting up a specialist unit to tackle Asian gun crime.

    Though Thompson says Trident has ‘made great strides’, I’ve sensed reservations as to its effectiveness among young black people. The reluctance of witnesses to testify is a problem, drugs are still readily available, and the flow of illegal weapons from abroad continues. But Thompson says the most shocking change in ten years of Trident is the drop in the age of those involved: ‘Now it’s 13-year-olds doing the shootings. And it’s become a natural way of life for them.’

    Neezy, 28, elder in the Younger Peckham Boys gang

    ‘Younger Peckham Boys started in 1991. We were out of school and didn’t have anything to do. The police used to follow us in riot vans while we were travelling on the bus to Elephant & Castle. We used to do a bit of graffiti. It was about having fun and creating hype. We never imagined it would escalate [into gun warfare]. ‘When the media and the police talk about gangs and guns, they get it all confused. The use of guns is more common, but why do they always blame everything on drugs? When someone gets shot, they always say: “We’re keeping an open mind in case this is drug related.” The majority of the time, it’s not. I should know: I’ve been shot in various parts of my body, my brother’s been shot, and we’ve both been arrested for firearms.‘For example, Ghetto Boys [a New Cross gang] told journalist Donal MacIntyre: “If any of those Peckham Boys come over to New Cross, this will happen [motions slitting throat]”. MacIntyre tried to put words into people’s mouths by suggesting that the Pecknarm [the nickname for Peckham], and Ghetto war is about drugs. But they informed him that this beef is inherited, not drugs or turf related. Never has been, never will be. It’s d been going on since ’78, handed down from generation to generation.‘Sometimes violence happens as a way of releasing frustration. Labour made 3,000 new laws in the last decade, prohibiting what we do. It takes 22 people to have a game of football. If 22 black males met in McDonald’s in Peckham to go to a match together, they would be dispersed. Under dispersal laws, you can be arrested. And they wonder why the jails are full? ‘More parents are out of the house working. This creates a situation with latch-key children, with no parents at home to check on what they’re doing. But when kids get an Asbo, they blame the parents. You can’t work and bring up your children at the same time; it’s not feasible. Don’t call them feral children! ‘In my opinion, Operation Trident’s interest is to look good, not prevent gun crime. The society we’re living in has created the problems, yet it’s us on the streets, the young black males, who get the blame. The criminal justice system provides jobs for police, judges and solicitors and no one’s really interested in rehabilitation. Probation didn’t visit me before I was released from prison. I didn’t even get any home leave to reintroduce me into society. They kicked me out with £46 in my pocket. And they expect people not to commit crimes?‘When it comes to the prevention of gun crime, education and providing more community centres are key factors. If young people can enjoy themselves while developing skills, it would keep them occupied and motivated. I think that faith and a relationship with God is important. How can you exclude God from schools and from society and still expect things to go well? It’s only because of the grace of God that I am alive today. I hope that by that same grace, eventually I will be able to turn my life around. It would also help to have politicians who can relate to situations they have to deal with. If you’ve never been worried about feeding your kids, how can you relate to a poor person’s situation?’

    Detective chief superintendent Helen Ball, head of Operation Trident

    ‘Trident has worked, but we’re certainly not at the end of any process. I think the most worrying trend has been the increasing involvement of young people in shootings and a rise in teenagers as victims. Our community engagement team has been doing an enormous amount in schools, talking to young people about what it means to make a decision to obtain a firearm. Whether they’re going to buy it or hire it, simply getting hold of a firearm is a criminal act. If they go on to use it, that’s another crime, for which people are sentenced for long periods. ‘Some say there are not enough black officers in Trident. First of all, 8 per cent of Trident’s officers are from black and ethnic minority communities. But we are a unit dealing with very violent crime and high-risk criminals that requires experienced detectives. The pool of experienced officers doesn’t contain many who are from black and ethnic minority communities, though they are coming through the organisation. What matters is the skills of each officer, their empathy, their compassion. ‘I think an officer’s skin colour does make a difference to families of people who have been killed. If a family sees someone from the same background, it helps build rapport. The family is able to give us information and work with the investigation. We haven’t experienced a lack of cooperation from the black community. It’s tremendously brave of people to come forward and they do – not only with intelligence, but to give evidence. They are very clear about the fact that shootings are an absolute blight on black communities. They don’t want these gunmen in their midst.’

    Uanu Seshmi, director of the Boyhood to Manhood Foundation, Peckham

    ‘I believe Trident’s time has passed. The force should either be integrated into the rest of the Met or disbanded completely, with a new focus on eastern European criminal activity. Alternatively, Trident needs to organise its structure better. One of the problems is that you have a white police force investigating black people. It would be better to have more high-ranking black police officers. White officers have taken the lead and it looks like black people cannot lead themselves. It gives the impression that there’s a fear within the police of having high-ranking black people. ‘Lately black people haven’t come forth to help the police. They did when Trident first started. We welcomed Trident because it was initiated by the black community, let’s make that clear. But it’s appalling to see that the police only had 8 per cent recruitment rates of ethnic minorities. It is so white-led. Is Trident still relevant? This idea of black-on-black violence was a term coined by South African police and it was a racist thing. If white people murder each other, you don’t hear of “white-on-white crime”.‘We need a public health perspective to this, not a criminal justice perspective. Smoking is a public health concern, right? Therefore, gun violence and knife violence is a public health concern because it ends up killing people and harming lives. You need to prevent it before it’s crossed the line. That’s far more important than blaming parents, blaming young people, putting metal detectors in schools and sentencing young people.’

    Boris Johnson, MP and Conservative mayoral candidate

    ‘I have already announced a five-point plan to tackle gun and knife crime, because we cannot have another year like last, where 27 teenagers lost their lives. First, I will drive out the political correctness that has infected the police and has resulted in an avalanche of paperwork that is keeping them off the streets. Second, I will consider giving the police hand-held scanners to use at major events and stations. Third, I will direct the London Development Agency (LDA) to fund community groups that provide mentoring services, so that kids are steered away from crime at an early age. Fourth, I will make sure a part of the LDA budget is used only for sports schemes, so there is an alternative to crime. And fifth, I will amend the London Plan, so that a greater emphasis is placed on designing out crime, so that the estates of the future are well-lit and secure.’

    Anonymous club owner, Shoreditch

    ‘I don’t even feel that Operation Trident exists. I haven’t ever met an officer or anyone who has said that they’re from Operation Trident; they’re certainly not visible to me. There’s definitely more gun crime on Shoreditch High Street. A few years ago there was none, or much less. It has a devastating effect on my business. The council and local authority are harder on bars – they restrict opening hours, they make it harder to operate – because of crime, they say, but they’re not solving anything. They’re just using gun crime as an excuse to tell you what to do. It’s a good way for them to boss us around without fixing anything.’

    David McFarlane, general secretary, Black Police Officers Association (BPA)

    ‘When Trident was established there was serious unease relating to what had been a lack of response in the black community to a call for information. Today, there still isn’t trust, the community still isn’t coming forward. The BPA has suggested holding public meetings to establish community cohesion with Trident and address the problem of people not coming forward.‘It would be advantageous to have more black officers and more black staff in management roles. Trident needs to look at making more effort to use more preventative methods through working closely with schools, hospitals and, most importantly, young people. ‘Exclusion from schools is a big problem. Once kids are on the streets they become involved in crime, and the black community needs to take responsibility for what is going on. ‘I get the same sort of response from the black community towards me, dealing with this issue, as I would if I was a white officer; lots of people simply don’t like the police. That said, on the whole, black officers have a fantastic relationship with the black community. But the new powers to stop and search are not the way forward. Ninety-seven per cent of black people are not involved in the criminal justice system. It is wrong to demonise all young black men.’

    Juanita Arthur, sister of Arian Arthur, 22, who was murdered in November 2006

    ‘My brother was on a night out at Jam, a club in Shoreditch, celebrating his friend’s birthday. He was talking to a girl there, when one of the men in the bar started saying to him, “What are you south London boys doing here, drinking Champagne and talking to our girls?” My brother said he didn’t know that the girl was with them – she said she wasn’t – so my brother turned back to his friends. The same man started on his friend; he knocked his drink over and things started getting heated. My brother pulled his friend out of the way and told him to ignore the man. My brother started dancing and chatting to his friends. ‘Ten minutes later he was shot twice in the back while he was dancing. One bullet went right through him and grazed someone else. His back was turned; he didn’t have time to run away or see what was going on. He died on the dancefloor. My brother was six foot two, good-looking and charismatic. He wasn’t involved in gangs or anything like that, his death was senseless. ‘Despite being investigated by Operation Trident, the murderers still haven’t been convicted. Two men were charged and the case was due to start in January 2008, but on the day, the case was dropped as the judge said there was not enough evidence to convict them. We are still waiting for justice. At first, I thought Trident dealt with the case well. I was full of hope, but now I have lost all faith and hope. ‘There is a problem that not enough people from our community come forward. They are scared of repercussions. But it is time for the black community to speak up. If people had spoken up my brother would still be alive. I just feel pure anger and hatred for the killers. I can’t forgive them. When people read the statistics that 27 people have been killed in the last year, it’s just a statistic to them; I wish people could see the damage that goes on after those deaths.’

    Brian Paddick, Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate

    ‘I will combat gun crime by building on my relationship with the black community from my time as borough commander in Brixton. I will expand Operation Trident from investigations of black-on-black murders to proactive steps to take guns off the streets. We need to see more intelligence-led stop and searches targeting criminals.’

    Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London

    ‘The Met needs support for Operation Trident, and we need a strong and clear commitment to maintaining the high levels of financial support for the Met. To address how people become dragged into gang and gun culture we need to massively invest in our young people. This means, for a third mayoral term, bringing back youth centres for our young people – a £78 million programme to set up youth centres and improve youth services to provide safe facilities outside school hours. This is now possible due to a funding scheme agreed between the Government and myself. Finally, a greater share of the millions of pounds in profits made by serious criminals should be returned to London. We need to, quite literally, turn crack houses into community centres.’
    For more information on Operation Trident visit www.stoptheguns.org

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