Long read: What the Recorder learned out on police patrol with the officers of Operation Gambler
PUBLISHED: 17:00 16 September 2019
It's six o'clock on a Friday night, and I'm sitting in a police briefing with dozens of officers from both the Metropolitan and Essex Police services. We're about to go hunting for bad guys. This is Operation Gambler.
Op Gambler is a joint cross-border operation aimed at disrupting burglars and car-jackers across Essex and Havering.
It was brought about after police noted a sharp spike in the number of cars stolen in Essex being dumped in Havering - most prominently in Rainham, Cranham and Harold Hill.
So, this Friday the 13th, I've been lucky enough to be invited out with officers in a bid to catch some of these criminals red-handed in an operation involving 25 police cars from both the Met and Essex. and around 50 officers in total.
It's the fifth Op Gambler action day (well, night), and the results have been brilliant - 37 arrests over the first four, and Sgt Ben Tanner, who has organised Gambler, is happy so far.
As he leads the pre-op briefing, I'm well and truly blown away by the sheer amount of intelligence these officers have.
They already know where their most wanted live, they know which cars they're most likely to be driving, and in some cases they even know their favourite places to dump stolen cars.
In one instance, they know how one repeat offender likes to act calm when first arrested, and then viciously lash out. It's a pattern of behaviour a few people in the room have already witnessed.
"If we pull him," Sgt Tanner tells the assembled officers, "we get as many hands on him as quickly as we can."
There's a big cheer a little later when one face flashes up on screen and an Essex officer quickly points out: "Nicked him yesterday, he won't be out tonight."
And then, as the briefing winds down, Sgt Tanner reveals that some of the Essex officers joining Gambler tonight aren't even being paid.
They're specials, I later find out, and they're just here because they heard about the operation, and they want to catch criminals.
And then we're out on the streets - roaming the M25 corridors of the A12 and A127.
I'm out in a marked car with a Pc and a sergeant from the Met (I won't name either of them here - but they were both excellent company and credits to their profession for the eight hours I spent with them). They tend to work in more investigative roles, so they're both up for a ride as responders tonight.
The skipper is behind the wheel, he's fully trained as a response driver and when he puts his foot down, boy are we moving.
And it's he who spots our first stop of the night in Upminster as we drive back from checking out a known drop-off point in Cranham.
Before I know what's going on we've pulled a U-turn and are bearing down on an old Ford Fiesta driving erratically through the town centre.
Once the car has pulled off the main road we get our blue lights on and flash our headlights at the driver.
There is a tense heartbeat where it seems as though the driver is thinking about putting his foot down, but after that moment he duly indicates and pulls over.
It turns out the driver, who happens to be delivering pizzas, doesn't have a driving licence - it's been revoked by the DVLA, apparently without his knowledge.
A quick check is run on the vehicle, and the details are all in line with what the driver has told officers.
Even when the driver is informed his car is going to be impounded, he seems to take it on the chin.
He turns to me at one point, standing there in my Met vest having already been identified as a journalist, and offers to give me a quote for the article.
Sure, I say, why not.
"Can't fault these lads to be fair," he tells me. "They've been nothing but straight up with me and treated me with nothing but respect.
"I'm actually glad they've pulled me because I've been driving round with no licence and imagine if I'd been in a crash and hurt someone."
So the right forms are filled out and statements are taken and off we send him, with two bags full of pizzas (and a cookie dough dessert and even a hamburger, he tells me - but no drinks) that will never be delivered.
And then I get a real taste of a copper's life - hurry up and wait.
We're told we'll have to wait for at least an hour for the recovery truck to come and take the Fiesta to the impound - the truck is somewhere in E9 near Homerton when the incident is called in.
There we are, sitting in a police car pulled up in a residential Upminster street with both pedestrians and drivers noticeably slowing down as they pass us.
"That's one of the great things about nights like tonight when we get more cars out," the skipper tells me.
"Unfortunately you can't measure it. You have no way of knowing how many of these people walking home now after a few beers after work had been thinking about getting in their cars and driving.
"But they see us, and they decide against it, and that's not going to show up in any crime figures."
Conversation quickly turns away from the job though.
The Pc is getting married in September next year, he somehow managed to keep his proposal completely secret and she had no idea it was coming.
It turns out sneaking a bottle of Champagne into a Georgian manor house is difficult even if you're a trained police officer, and he's rightly proud he managed it.
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The skipper moved over to East Area (the tri-borough Borough Command Unit (BCU) responsible for policing Havering, Redbridge and Barking and Dagenham). He had been posted in Tower Hamlets for years and is still finding his feet in the borough.
He's also fully riot trained, and admits that recent protests up in Westminster have made his life more hectic than usual.
It's an interesting hour of conversation, and a good reminder that coppers are still human beings once they've pulled on that vest and got the new X2 Tazer on their hip.
As we sit there waiting there is one tense moment when a car tears past us with no headlights on, something that the skipper tells me "screams drink driving" to him.
He's clearly itching to follow, but can't because, as he explains to me, these two officers are now legally responsible for the car they confiscated until it's picked up.
So we sit there until the car is picked up, and then off we go once more.
Our second stop is a speeding BMW in Harold Hill - the driver has been clocked at 55mph in a 30 zone.
The car stops immediately once the blue lights are lit, and when the driver gets out he looks visibly strung out.
"He's either on something, or he is absolutely exhausted," the skipper tells me as he radios for a swab testing kit, that will determine if the driver is under the influence of any drugs, to be brought out.
The swab is in fact brought out by an Essex Police officer, who explains the process to the stopped driver as he runs the swab kit around the inside of his mouth.
This is rather new kit, I learn later, and it takes eight minutes to get the results, so while we're all waiting at the roadside the skipper decides to breathalyse the driver, who admitted he had been out for a few drinks after work at around 5pm - it's gone 11.30pm by this point.
As the drugs swab comes back negative, the breathalyser results are of slightly more interest.
The driver has blown 34 mgs of alcohol per 100mls of breath.
The legal limit is 35. As lucky as that is, the Pc explains that blood alcohol levels can go up as well as down in the hours after drinking.
So, having heard that the driver lives nearby, he makes a decision.
He's going to confiscate the driver's keys and leave them at Romford Police Station, to be collected at any point after noon tomorrow.
Another potential danger off the streets - as the driver walks off down the road everyone is happy with a job well done.
The cops decide to head down to Rainham, where there have been reports of three youngsters shining torches into cars.
By the time we get there a group of teenagers in a car have already been stopped. We pull over briefly to help out but it isn't them.
The perpetrators have presumably seen the police closing in and done a runner.
Next we're at a drink-driving stop back in Upminster - a young man has been arrested and his friends aren't happy.
By the time we get there a number of the other Op Gambler units are on the scene and the matter is being dealt with.
Driving back towards Hornchurch there's a brief moment of excitement when a call comes in on the radio that an Uber has failed to stop for officers and is now being pursued down St Mary's Lane towards Hall Lane.
Being an Upminster boy myself, I am well aware that we are actually, at that very moment, driving down Hall Lane.
"They're coming right towards us," the Pc tells the skipper as he gains speed.
The three of us are all eyes as we get closer and closer to the town centre and the Hall Lane junction with St Mary's Lane.
We're expecting to see an Uber come blazing towards us any second now.
Instead, what we get is a message over the radio.
"Cancellation. Just a driver who doesn't know what blue lights and us flashing him means."
And with that, it's gone half two in the morning and the pair of them make a decision to head in for the night.
Over the radio we can tell that some of the Op Gambler units have had slightly busier nights than us, but like the skipper said earlier, just being out on the streets and as visible as we were is bound to have made a difference.
Back at HQ, I watch as the Pc's Tazer is officially signed back in - careful notice taken of the fact all the cartridges it was issued with have been brought back, and then it's just a matter of handing in my Met vest and driving home myself.
By Monday morning, the full results have been totted up, and it was indeed a very productive night for the officers of Op Gambler.
During the operation, which ran from 6pm to 3am, more than 130 vehicle stops occurred with a number of suspects and vehicles thoroughly searched.
Ten new intel reports were created to help police in their continuing fight against crime, four vehicles seized, four traffic tickets issued, and the same number reported for no insurance or no driving licence offences.
Officers took part in two fail-to-stop pursuits but both of these were terminated by officers over safety concerns.
Eight arrests were made on Friday night - three for drug supply, two for drug driving, two for drink driving and one person who was already wanted on suspicion of GBH.
It was one hell of an eye-opening experience, and I'm left with no doubt in my mind that Op Gambler is helping the emergency services crack down on people making the roads more dangerous.