Crime at the Car Wash? Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA

A report on a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery


Louise Westmarland, Professor of Criminology and Steve Conway, Lecturer, PuLSE at the Open University, organised a conference in November 2018 bringing together police practitioners and academics working in the field of organised crime. This was held with thanks to funding from HERC and the BSC.


What is the National Crime Agency (NCA) and how does it deal with organised crime?

On 2 November 2018, the BSC’s Policing Network, in collaboration with the Open University’s Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) held a conference on Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA at the Open University in Milton Keynes. Details of the event and the speakers are available on the HERC website.

The event gathered a mix of academics and practitioners to consider recent developments in organised crime, its impact and responses.  In recent years, there has been an increasing recognition from both researchers and CJS professionals that a range of organised crimes and social harms can occur in the most mundane of contexts.  Attendees heard about illegal deer hunting in sparsely populated rural areas; exploitation of young people by drug dealers in residential housing estates; and the use of modern slave labour at the local car wash.  The very banality of these settings can further hide and obscure these issues.

Mr Rob Jones, Director at the National Crime Agency (NCA), provided the keynote speech Serious Organised Crime: A view from inside the NCA in which he set out the challenges facing his organisation in relation to cybercrime and county lines. His paper explained the national and international challenges of organised crime. These themes were expanded on by DCI Darran Hill of Thames Valley Police in his paper on The Stronghold Campaign: Fighting Organised Crime in Partnership. Providing a local context, DCI Hill explained the importance of partnership working in combating organised crime, illustrated by the case studies of county lines drug trafficking and successful efforts to close illegal carwashes in Thames Valley.

These papers gave way to a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery and contributors from the audience included senior officers from the local area. Is it unethical to use a hand car wash as it is possible that the workers are being exploited? If you have used a hand car wash were the workers wearing wellingtons and proper waterproof gloves? After Rob and Darran had given us the police ‘inside view’ on these issues, we enjoyed papers by Dr Anna Sergi from Essex University called From mafia to Organised Crime: A comparative analysis of policing models and then a paper by recent Open University PhD graduate, Dr Sarah Hutton Disrupting Organised Crime?

One of the surprising aspects of the morning conference was the frankness and candour of the talks. Rob Jones’ paper on the NCA was definitely an insider’s view, and the talk about Thames Valley’s efforts related to turning young people away from drug crime certainly raised eyebrows. One of the most unexpected contributions was that Darran contradicted a conventional police view – that all drug crime can be solved and that the war on drugs is being ‘won’.

It was good to obtain the current police and NCA view on organised crime and the response to it from Rob Jones and DCI Darran Hill. It became apparent that their organisations are looking to academia to answer a number of questions in respect of debriefing, evaluating operations and securing expertise to deal with organised crime i.e.

  • What difference police organised crime operations have made (what is the legacy)?
  • How organised is modern slavery and human trafficking?
  • What are the offender pathways into organised crime?
  • How to retain the expertise needed to deal with cybercrime?
  • How to re-balance proactive/reactive policing (especially in respect of policing organised crime) after the balance has been tipped firmly towards reactive policing by government cuts?

From Milton Keynes to mafia?

After a coffee break, Anna Sergi treated us all to an entertaining high-speed ride around the organisation of mafia-type organisations; followed by Sarah Hutton’s ‘insider out’ view (as a cop turned academic), detailing her work with organised criminals, whom, she argued, are actually pretty disorganised. Dr Adam Edwards offered some sage observations, including organised crime policy trends and their analytical focus. As he pointed out in his paper:

The way organised crime is addressed in the UK has undergone a major overhaul in the last few years with the creation of the National Crime Agency. The first strategic assessment provides a good snapshot of the current state of organised crime. However, it points to a lack of knowledge about organised crime and its drivers–some of which could be addressed through research and deeper analysis. If the NCA is going to have a better record than its predecessors, it must work on getting the basics right. Knowing your enemy would be a good start.  (RUSI 2014, cited in Edwards, 2016: 987, emphasis added)

These papers all ended up asking a fairly basic question for a conference on organised crime, namely:

So, what exactly is organised crime?

In fact, Dr Sarah Hutton and Dr Anna Sergi highlighted the difficulties and differences that still exist in establishing a definition of organised crime. This is the starting point for any research into the subject. A good solution was put forward by Dr Adam Edwards, Orlando Goodall and Mark Berry in their explanation of the way that organised specific crimes are being analysed using crime script analysis. Orlando and Mark followed a thought provoking talk by Adam Edwards, who gave us the benefit of his experience and unparalleled knowledge of the field. He talked about Sayer’s (2000) realist social relations approach, from threat indication…and its related problems such as privileging enforcement over prevention, to (realist) causal explanation.

Then the afternoon kicked off into a lively no holds barred discussion, with nearly everyone in the audience taking part. This numbered around 30 by now, having reduced from 50 in the morning (well, it was a Friday). All of the papers throughout the day, whilst from contrasting standpoints, had highlighted an interesting range of largely unexplored areas of organised crime. Until recently who would have thought that the local car wash was a site of organised crime? Or a nail bar?  By providing a detailed analysis of the organisation of different crime types, as diverse as the illegal taking of deer, the speakers stimulated so many questions that the session overran, we went straight to tea break and home.

Louise Westmarland and Steve Conway with thanks to Dick Severns and all the conference speakers, convenors and helpers.

Also published on the HERC blog




Copyright free images courtsey of the authors


One thought on “Crime at the Car Wash? Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA”

  1. I am a retired Detective Inspector and now a Prof Doc (International Criminal Justice) and associate lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) in the Law and Criminology Department. Apart from teaching students interested in joining the police and the National Crime Agency (NCA), I am currently working with Dr Craig Paterson and officers from Derbyshire Constabulary to debrief a recent transnational organised modern slavery investigation (Operation Doubrava). The aim of the debrief is to develop knowledge of the police response to Transnational Organised Crime (TNOC) through a critical exploration of Operation Doubrava and the role of Joint Investigation Teams (JITs).

    We have embedded a case study of Operation Doubrava into student learning and we are involving students in a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of previous research into the use of JITs and other methods to investigate transnational modern slavery. Thereafter, subject to securing funding, we hope to complete a full nodal and crime script analysis of Operation Doubrava by further debriefing those involved in the transnational investigation, which involved police officers from Derbyshire and Latvia working within the frame work of a JIT. Therefore, all the speakers at the conference were relevant to our work and I have briefed staff and students at SHU about the conference.

    Hopefully the debrief of Operation Doubrava will also contribute towards answering the questions raised by the NCA’s Rob Jones and DCI Darran Hill from Thames Valley Police, which are highlighted by Professor Louise Westmarland and Dr Steve Conway in their blog.

    For me Orlando Goodall and Mark Berry, supported by Dr Adam Edwards, provided a detailed analysis of the organisation of different crime types (Illegal taking of deer and use of mobile technology and the internet in illicit drug markets). Such detailed crime script analysis should be the basis of any good analysis of organised crime and how organised it is and would provide knowledge to help iron out the difficulties and differences evidenced by Dr Sarah Hutton and Dr Anna Sergi. As a former Detective Inspector in intelligence I would have welcomed such crime script analysis explaining the organisation of the crime and opportunities for preventing such crime. It would have allowed me to make informed decisions with senior officers on how much resource to put into policing those crimes and where to target those resources.

    There is a need to be flexible in deciding how organised a crime is and how much resources and what type of resources are targeted at the problem, depending on the impact on victims and communities. There has been too much dependence on a tick box approach to obtaining resources and too much of a rigid definition as to what organised crime is in order to manage resources. I have been a party to that in the past and from discussions at the conference such an approach to obtaining resources still exists. I have also had to argue against parochial attitudes to obtain resources to deal with crime that was organised on a local basis but impacted elsewhere. As evidenced by Dr Sergi in her blog on Brexit and the myths of transnational organised crime organised crime is just as much (if not more) local as it is transnational, but impacts at all levels. As academics we need to help the NCA and the police develop the knowledge they gather daily for them to further understand organised crime and how to respond to it. They do not have the resources for such detailed analysis and academia can step in and help.

    Dick Severns
    Sheffield Hallam University


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