Children are at risk of being exploited by violent drug gangs with offers of ‘quick money’ due to the impact of Covid on the economy, a top police chief warned.
Sir Dave Thompson, the Chief Constable for West Midlands Police, said he is hugely worried by the prospect of more young people turning to crime if their chance of getting a legitimate job is reduced by the pandemic.
The 51-year-old police boss said street dealing and drug production networks have expanded during the pandemic – but vowed to target gang recruiters and keep communities safe.
Mr Thompson said that gangs and violence are the number one operational concern as lockdown restrictions are gradually reduced in the coming months.
Speaking at the site of a major new operational command centre on Park Lane in Aston, Mr Thompson told BirminghamLive: “The dangers are that a lot of young people in our inner city areas, sadly, are being offered quick money.
“It’s more accessible than sometimes a legitimate employer will be. We’ve got to give, as part of the growth (of the economy), the chance of legitimate opportunities to people.
“It’s too easy when you are out of school and there isn’t an option, which you might normally have, to find yourself a job. That really worries me.”
Police have been given an extra £3.7 million to prevent children becoming involved in violent crime via a body set up called the Violence Reduction Unit.
Mr Thompson added: “As we come come out of lockdown, gangs and violence are the number one operational pressure for the force.
“A lot of our young people have not been in school, we’re really worried about that and it increases their risk of being exploited and getting into trouble.
“We’ve seen the economy contract, five of the highest wards with unemployment are in the city of Birmingham, nationally, so that risk of legitimate work for young people has been contracted at the moment, which is a worry.
“We’ve seen some real destabilisation in the drug’s market. It’s harder to import things illegally because there’s less people movement.
“The amount of cannabis factories we are finding are increasing as people are turning their efforts to growing that.
“Some of the areas where drugs might have been sold in our licensed premises have gone, so that street dealing issue has generated more conflict.”
He said teen crime has been “challenging” during the pandemic and told how crucial it was to target those who bring gangs together.
“We are looking at areas of the city which have challenges from violence. We are looking to work more with parents, schools using early intervention,” he said.
“Police have to target those that brings gangs together. We’ve got to deter weapon carrying on the street.
“Critically, when we have serious crimes or murders people have got to be caught. We have a good track record of catching people as they can’t be seen to get away with these serious crimes.
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“It’s hellishly complex. It is one of these broader partnerships and I think the Government recognises that.
“Policing will not fix violence on its own, police is an intrinsic part of solving violence.”
There has been an 30 percent increase in the amount of crime reported online by the public within the region.
He also said the pandemic had been “unprecedented” time on policing as the anniversary of the first national lockdown looms on March 23.
“We’ve had people who have died, people have been ill, all the restrictions to learn with policing and working from home,” he said.
“The regulations have changed quite a lot and our approach of course has been to ensure the public is following the law.
“We’ve tried to educate and make sure people are sticking to the rules.
“Our crime has changed quite a lot – no football matches, no night time economy. Big reductions in burglary, robbery, vehicle crime, but big rises in domestic abuse and online harassment.
“We’ve seen online reporting of crime increase as we don’t want people in our houses at the moment. About 30 percent of what were 101 calls are now dealt with online reporting or webchats.
“There’s quite a big shift with the public’s interaction online.”
Asked if he thought policing had become more dangerous due to the pandemic, Mr Thompson said: “I think officers are better equipped and we have more firearms officers and have more capability. We have bodycams and better training.
“In some ways the ability for police to deal with violence has improved. I think we have seen society more willing to challenge the police, we’ve seen more assaults on officers.
“I think it’s a balance. Policing has always been dangerous. If you look back on our history the most dangerous time for policing was the Victorian era.
“I don’t underestimate the risks and that’s why I think the new legislation coming through for stiff sentences for assaults on emergency workers is important.
“Policing is a dangerous profession. There are definitely dangerous risks. I hope we are getting the balance right and protecting our officers policing the streets.”
The Chief Constable hailed a new command control centre – which will include gold and silver commanders, a major incident commander and multi agencies – which is due to open this summer.
The dispatch control rooms for Birmingham will be run from the building called C3 – standing for Command, Control and Coordination.
Mr Thompson said lessons had been learned from an inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017.
“It has also been built out of the learning we’ve seen from the Manchester Inquiry. The need for agencies to come together quickly. The need for police to escalate command and control,” Mr Thompson said.
“It’s not something we’ve had at West Midlands Police. The new site brings our control rooms together. It brings our command facilities together. It brings our intelligence together.
“It will also be home for things like our firearms teams, so we’ve got the right command in place to keep the public safe, but also getting it ready in time for an exciting period of time in Birmingham’s history.”
During the Commonwealth Games 2022, in Birmingham, officers will run an “enormous security operation” at this hub.
West Midlands Fire Service and West Midlands Ambulance Service still have their own control rooms, but they will join up here for major incidents.
“At the moment they are all in different sites and that creates a huge problem when you are trying to coordinate it,” Mr Thompson said.
“It’s how you mobilise up in a crisis as time is of the essence. This will link the emergency services together. We got to make it a site that meets their needs when they come here.”