A SPECIALIST police anti-gun squad has claimed criminals in a Yorkshire city are dodging detection by forcing “vulnerable” people to store their weapons – after revealing that last year saw a four-fold increase in firearms seizures.
The Operation Quartz team – set up in 2009 to combat gun and drug crime in Leeds – confiscated 27 weapons from criminals over the course of 2013, having seized seven the previous year. The figures are predominantly made up of shotguns and sawn-off shotguns, in many cases stolen from legitimate owners.
Officers leading Operation Quartz said the increase in seizures was due to improved police tactics rather than the proliferation of guns.
But they admitted there was growing evidence of organised criminals coercing people – many seen as soft targets because of their own drug or alcohol problems – into holding weapons for them in order to avoid the automatic five-year minimum prison term for possessing a gun.
Detective Superintendent Pat Twiggs, who oversees Operation Quartz, said: “One of the trends we’re noticing is that organised criminals are using vulnerable people to store guns. It’s making our job more difficult to trace where they came from. But the community can help us by telling us if they hear of this happening.”
Detective Inspector Jaz Khan, who leads a team of 12 plain-clothes detectives, said the trend mirrored a growing phenomenon of people being forced to run cannabis farms from their homes by high-level criminals.
“They’re forcing vulnerable people to have these farms,” he said.
“They believe, wrongly, that the police aren’t as interested in these cannabis grows as in class A drugs. There’s a change in the market, but they’re still the same group of people, which is why we increasingly have to have a broader approach.”
Set up partially in response to a Government pledge to tackle gun crime, Quartz initially focused on the Chapeltown area of Leeds, where there had historically been problems, before being rolled out across the city.
Working in conjunction with covert units, armed officers and neighbourhood policing teams, its tactics include subjecting known offenders who are not in prison to regular visits at home. Those suspected of being involved in firearms crime are warned that they are being watched.
Covert methods include surveillance by under-cover officers and the use of spy cameras.
Since 2009, 140 people have been convicted and sentenced to a combined total of 546 years in prison as a result of Quartz.
Last year was the operation’s most productive to date, with 35 criminals being handed prison sentences totalling 150 years.
But detectives admit they are unable to eradicate gun crime entirely. High-profile incidents like the shooting of PC Suzanne Hudson in Headingley last month serve as an illustration of the difficulties they face.
Mr Twiggs said: “What has happened to our colleague recently brings home the fact that it’s very difficult to know who’s holding weapons. Quartz is doing its level best with the intelligence available but to understand the full extent of the problem is very difficult.”
However, while the number of guns seized in Leeds last year rose, the number of incidents involving firearms dropped – from 363 in the 12 months to November 2012 to 294 in the following 12 months. The number of incidents in which a gun was fired also fell, from 54 to 39.
Mr Twiggs added: “Quartz is intelligence-led – and it’s starting to target the right people. I’ve no doubt removing these people from the streets has significantly contributed to the drop in incidents.”
Shane Fenton, the head of the Speak to the Streets charity aimed at preventing young people being caught up in gangs, said criminals were becoming more reluctant to use guns. “People realise the dangers of having guns, the reality of being caught with them,” he said. “As long as there’s money in drugs, some people will have guns, but the young people I deal with know it’s not worth it.”