The day begins just before 0630. We enter through the back door of a police station in the suburbs of a Northern town, the designated headquarters for a large police search operation to be carried out today across a number of homes and businesses. The station is a low-rise office block with added extras (such as cells) and if you’re familiar with the recently defunct TV show The Bill, its interior won’t come as a surprise: it’s a series of neon-lit, low-ceilinged corridors with offices and briefing rooms leading off them. On the walls of the corridors there are noticeboards, with charity sponsorship forms and admonitory messages (‘You can’t talk your way out of a situation you’ve behaved yourself into’) pinned to them. Highly visible around the station is a series of posters bearing the slogan, ‘Enforced marriage: it’s not cultural, it’s wrong.’ The classrooms all contain whiteboards and flip charts. Walking past one room, I glimpse a flip chart with a seesaw drawn on it. ‘Risk’ and ‘Benefit’ sit at either end, in perfect equilibrium. Through another doorway I see a whiteboard carrying a highly detailed street plan of the local area.

As this is a big search, there’s a lot of activity in the station. We walk past rooms containing groups of police, some already in their protective gear, all bulked up and paramilitary in their protective vests, combat boots and equipment belts. Others, in plain clothes, are minimalist in their get-up – just handcuffs and a collapsible baton, known as an ASP (it’s made by a company called Armament Systems and Procedures), which fits discreetly under a jacket. There’s a sense of boyish excitement about the place. It’s like the beginning of a new school term or the start of a holiday.

By the time we reach the right room, the briefing has already begun and it’s standing room only. The room is full of detectives, mostly from the local serious and organised crime squad. They wear jeans or cargo pants, fleeces and anoraks. The majority are in their thirties and a lot of them sport the Grant Mitchell look. There are women officers too, who wear their hair short and are in the same jeans, puffa-jackets and fleeces as their male counterparts. These men and women, like all the other police officers I’ve encountered, exhibit certain core characteristics. Used to spending lots of time waiting around for things to happen, they’re addicted to banter and very good at sustaining it; they’re both respectful and resentful of authority; they have a strong sense of moral purpose and duty and a millenarian view of the world – for many, the barbarians are always at the gates.

These detectives, who face danger on a regular basis, have also developed a persona that looks to dominate the situation, this being seen as the best way of controlling the difficult customers they meet without having to resort to violence. They have a loathing for political correctness, which they blame for many of society’s ills. In some of them, this has developed into a near paranoia concerning questions of race, rights and the bias of the liberal media. They are also personally courageous. In short, they’re an all-white, lower middle-class bunch of the kind you’d expect to see at the football or watching The X Factor, with the crucial difference that they are authorised to take away your liberty and can use physical force if you don’t agree to accompany them to the station.

A detective superintendent is speaking. He’s giving a strategic overview of the operation. Two Asian families are battling for control of various criminal enterprises in the area. Their rivalry is an extension of a tribal feud that has been transposed to the UK from their country of origin. The raids today are an attempt to disrupt the activities of the more powerful of the two families. They are important, I’m told later, because there’s a sense that the stronger family is beginning to ‘boss’ the area a little too much. It has gained some slight political influence and attempted, at least, to gain influence among the police too.

Next, the DI in direct charge of the operation takes the floor. Smartly suited and suicidally positive, like a general who’s about to send his men over the top, he dispenses instructions about which teams are to search where; then he takes a couple of questions. A shaven-headed, broken-nosed plainclothes man raises his hand and asks with one knowing eye on his peers: ‘Will they get remanded on this one?’ Meaning, will the individuals who are going to be arrested at the beginning of the searches be kept in prison before they face trial or – as has clearly happened before – will they be released on bail? Just as Al Capone was finally convicted of tax offences, the police here are finding they can’t get a prosecution for the many acts of violence perpetrated by the family (including murder and arson), thanks to the bribing and intimidation of potential witnesses.

Today’s raids are designed to seize documentary evidence relating to certain types of financial crime. While this should go much of the way to providing a reliable case against the defendant, it won’t in itself be enough and the police will also have to rely on testimony from witnesses. The problem is that people are frequently released on bail when they’ve committed this type of offence, so the detective’s question is a good one. If bail is granted, members of the family will be free to intimidate the relevant witnesses. But the DI’s enthusiasm is not to be dampened. He admits that they probably will get bail. ‘What we’re going to do,’ he says, ‘is put surveillance teams on them. They’re guaranteed to go and speak to potential witnesses and when they do, we’ll nick ’em.’ The DI is wily. He’s renowned for being a meticulous organiser who knows all the tricks and this, on a cold, dark autumn morning, is very reassuring.

The group now splits into teams. The leader of each is given a briefing sheet with details of the specific task they are to carry out. As well as the teams who will search the premises there are arrest and interview teams. The arrest teams will deploy first to the various individuals’ (‘nominals’ in police speak) homes, hoping to catch them still asleep or else just getting up, still partially dressed and therefore at their most vulnerable.

This feeling of vulnerability will be amplified by the noise and aggression of the police officers coming in dressed like space marines – helmeted, armoured and up for it. This isn’t an overreaction; some of the men who’ll be arrested this morning are violent and the police hold in their collective memory the death of Stephen Oake, the Special Branch detective stabbed by a suspect with a kitchen knife when a house he was searching hadn’t been secured. Much better, the theory goes, to do a lot of shouting and avoid anything more serious.

For the team I’m accompanying, these issues should be academic because we’re searching the office of a local financial adviser who has been helping the family carry out fraud. The owner of the business will be arrested at his home and we shouldn’t encounter anyone else on the premises. Aside from me, there are four others in the team, three detectives from the force’s serious and organised crime unit (Dave, Phil and Liz) and one motorcycle policeman (Jim), drafted in for today’s proceedings. None of my team has been on the case previously; Phil and Liz are currently working together on a serious sexual offences case so they’re worried about what they should be looking for, not being familiar with financial crime.

Dave, a detective sergeant, is the team leader. He’s a handsome jack-the-lad in his late thirties, tanned from a couple of weeks in Spain and wearing his cuffs and ASP slung under his armpit as though he were carrying a firearm in a holster. He says he’s hopeless at maths and doesn’t have any experience of economic crime either. None of that should be a problem: we have powers to seize whole filing cabinets of documents if they’re potentially relevant and in any case it’s not practicable to sift through all the material while we’re on the premises. With our introductions made, our specific briefing delivered and the question of who’s going to travel in which car decided, all we have to do is wait for the arrests to be made and then get ‘on plot’ and carry out the search.

Today, Dave tells me, is a suck-it-and-see day. This means that arrangements and timings are fluid and that plans could change at the drop of a hat. Despite the DI’s insistence that the operation will unfold like the preordained ritual of the Imperial Chinese court, at 0700 hours our search team is already in the process of sucking it and seeing. Apparently there’s been a delay in arresting the owner of the business and the decision is made to go for breakfast in a greasy spoon. Because of my dual qualification as both an outsider and a newcomer, I’m subject to a bit of banter. Apologies are offered for the fact that they can’t provide my usual London breakfast of bagels and smoked salmon, and attempts are made to get me to order ‘the big bopper’, an enormous plateful of fried food which, if you finish it, qualifies you for an additional, free big bopper. We settle down to breakfast, a read of the tabloids and some discussion on the current state of the force.

The conversation turns to training courses – another bane of law enforcement officers – and Jim the motorcycle cop tells a story about the most stupid trainer he has ever met. Jim had entered into an argument with the trainer, who told him that with his attitude ‘the founder of the police, John Peel, would have been ashamed of me.’ Everyone laughs and Jim continues: ‘So I said to her: “John Peel – what? You mean the dead disc jockey?” And then I said: “Don’t you mean Robert Peel? Cos if it was John Peel, we’d all be known as Johnnies.”’ This gets a really good laugh and Jim, who is cut from rather rougher cloth than the officers from the serious and organised crime squad, develops his theme.

‘I mean, speaking of nicknames,’ and he folds up his copy of the Sun, ‘can anyone answer me this one? What’s wrong with calling someone a Paki?’ There’s silence around the table, which Jim continues to riff over. ‘Cos the thing is, they call themselves Paki so why shouldn’t I? What’s the difference? Same with nigger.’ Phil interjects: ‘Well I wouldn’t go that –’. ‘I mean,’ says Jim, ‘everyone calls that bloke in forensics Paddy and he was asked one day whether he minded and he said: “Why the fuck would I mind, me name is Paddy.”’ Jim delivers this line in an oirish accent. ‘His name was Patrick,’ he explains, ‘and do you know what?’ Silence. ‘I had to fill out a form saying that I didn’t mind being called Tubby. True. It’s political correctness gone fucking mad.’ The team musters a laugh. Someone tries to move things on with a joke about Suggs and his pop group which has the punchline, ‘It’s Madness gone politically correct.’ But it doesn’t go down well and we lapse into silence. Jim unfurls his Sun and turns to an article. ‘Have you seen this?’ Liz braces slightly. ‘Al-Megrahi – still not dead. It’s a fucking joke.’ He goes back to his paper and the remnants of his big bopper and there’s a faint smile on his face.

0830 hours. Suck it and see. Suddenly, Dave gets a call and we immediately get moving. Dave is the search leader so he’s in overall charge of the team and executes the warrant. Jim is our exhibits officer. He will direct the progress of the search and is responsible for ensuring that it’s done in the prescribed way. The essential tool of the exhibits officer is a search book, a type of ledger in which a record of all the items is kept. Jim will also be in charge of the search kit and the bags in which the searchers (Phil and Liz) will put any exhibits they find. The searchers will each be given a particular area of the room or rooms to go over and their task will be to find any potentially relevant items, put them into an evidence bag, seal it and hand it to the exhibits officer. If the searchers and the exhibits officer carry out this process correctly there should be an audit trail, so that the progress of an exhibit from initial seizure to production at trial as a piece of evidence can be traced.

The suspect’s office has one main room with three desks and tens of filing cabinets pushed against the walls. There’s a small kitchen and toilet and a waiting area by the entrance. We’ve got the keys and let ourselves in. The sign on the door says ‘Closed’ and there’s a handwritten yellow post-it note with ‘Back in 15 minutes’ stuck to the glass. We have a laugh about that one. Then we draw the blinds and turn on the lights. Jim makes a note of the time and the search begins. He settles down at one of the desks, opens up his new search book and begins filling it out.

The team are experienced detectives and, guided by Jim, they establish a good system of trawling through the material. It can be very tedious bagging and recording exhibits, and to keep everyone alert Jim announces the score from time to time: ‘Liz 6, Phil 2.’ This is a relatively simple, document-based search but there are instances where a suspect’s ingenuity is impressive. Child pornographers – Liz’s speciality – hide memory sticks in plugs and socket fittings and police forces have developed specialist search teams who can literally take apart a room’s fixtures and fittings. Jim looks up and grumbles because he’s a trained searcher. Why has he, the only specialist, been made to suffer the hell of completing the exhibits book?

Then Liz shouts, ‘One dick, two chicks!’ and laughs. ‘That’s much better. I’m so much more comfortable when it’s sex-related material.’ She’s found a collection of DVDs locked in the businessman’s desk drawer. ‘Give me a used condom and a pair of panties any day,’ she says. Her discovery underlines the fact that it’s highly intrusive, this searching through another person’s belongings. It’s even worse at a private house, where a competent search team can cause all manner of upset and offence. I was present at one search where an innocent wife’s diary of conception attempts was leafed through and eventually seized. It was necessary to do so but it was traumatic for a woman who had no inkling of her husband’s activities until he was arrested in front of her and their young child at 6 a.m. on a November morning. Even in an office like this, it’s difficult to ignore the feeling that you are intruding somewhere you shouldn’t.

Across the filing cabinets are ranged invitations to various local charity dinners, menus signed by celebrity chefs and photographs taken at fundraising auctions of the businessman posing next to retired sportsmen, the old footballers’ faces frozen in the pain of having to endure death by a thousand photos with drunken self-made men and (as it turns out) crooks. Disorganised criminals, which is to say the vast majority of those who commit crime, live in a parallel social and cultural world which only intersects with our own when we are inconvenienced by it – the stolen car, the vandalised bus stop. Organised crime, on the other hand, can seep into and then manipulate civil society, even the prosaic world of the Rotary and the golf club. The threat it poses for the middle classes, and its corresponding attractiveness to the poor, the dispossessed and the immigrant, is that, rather than being in an inferior position vis-à-vis the structures that sustain our law-abiding bourgeois lives, it becomes entwined with and may eventually end up both inhabiting and inverting those structures. This is clearly the case in Sicily and Mexico, but it’s also in its own small way the case here, in this office in a dull Northern town.

There’s a huge bottle of champagne on the cabinet, the prize from some charity auction. Dave wonders aloud what the name for it is. It’s not a magnum, too big for that.

‘Nebuchadnezzar?’ I volunteer.

‘You can tell you come from London,’ he says.

‘It’s a jeroboam,’ Jim says.

‘You,’ Dave points at Jim. ‘You should not fucking know that word.’ The search continues.

After an hour or so there’s a loud shout and Phil, who’s been taking a breather outside, rushes in, staring in disbelief. ‘I’ve just seen B—.’ Liz and Phil immediately run out of the office, instinctively checking they have their cuffs and batons. Twenty minutes later, they’re back, breathing heavily, and Phil explains how, out of the blue, he saw B— at the top of the street. B— is on bail for raping a number of underage girls. He’s banned from the area and should be confined to an address in London. They’ve followed him to a house and now uniformed police have shown up to deal with him. ‘Get him out of here and back down there – tough shit for the 12-year-olds in London,’ Dave jokes. The search carries on.

After several hours we’ve seized two computers and innumerable files and documents, and all that remains is to perform the end-of-search formalities and secure the property. The team, and Jim in particular, have done a meticulous job to the letter of the law, and as I’m not needed for the endgame, I leave to go back to the station. As I walk down the street I pass a small group of local youths, lounging half-uncertain, half-aggressive, attracted no doubt to the activity in the street when Phil and Liz pursued their man. Softly, unsure how to pitch it both musically and so as to strike the appropriate balance between aggression and cheekiness, one of them sings:

I smell bacon, I smell bacon

I smell a piggy, I smell a piggy.

I carry on walking and there’s a silence, which, in a way, is worse than noise.

Back at the station I’m sitting in the canteen waiting to find out whether I will be needed elsewhere; if not, I can stand down and go back to London. An older detective, neat and moustachioed, comes over to speak to me. He is articulate and his tone is measured. He’s very worried about the level and nature of crime in the area. His concerns, as with Jim, are about race. He’s really pleased that this operation has gone according to plan because these Asian families have got it too easy, they’re changing the area, they have to be stopped. There’s an elegiac quality to his voice: an autumnal acknowledgment that things can never be the same again. No more fair play, no more cricket on the village green – or at least, no more cricket on the village green that hasn’t been bet on by Asian crime syndicates.

It’s the same problem in M—, another trouble spot within the force’s boundaries, but there, he tells me, the problem is Eastern Europeans, who are setting up networks to enslave migrant workers. There’s an unreal quality to his musings, as he delivers his muted, suburban version of the Twilight of the Gods. He’s heard about this morning’s incident with the sex offender too, and gives me some details that the search team, including Jim, had omitted. ‘It’s Asians doing it with white girls.’ I want to ask him whether there are any whites at all committing crime in the area, but now he’s moved on to telling a story about how he met his wife when they were both training to be detectives. ‘I’ve almost done my 30 years – year and a half to go. I’ll be glad to be out of it,’ he tells me. Then the DI who gave the briefing this morning puts his head round the door and says brightly: ‘Lift’s ready.’ I shake hands with the old detective and leave the canteen.

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