5 April 2010

Steven Purcell & Scottish organised crime (Redux)

Since it is a quiet Easter Monday, no doubt all pious contemplation with hardly a synapse to spare on the crude worldliness of politics, I thought I'd indulge in another 'Redux' post and recover what I hope is an interesting and apt post from my archive, of revived relevance to contemporary issues.

Given the increasing emphasis in the ongoing scandal surrounding Steven Purcell on the former Glasgow City Council Leader's organised crime connections and the professional drug-pushers which seem to have furnished him with his cocaine, I thought this post from June 2009 might be of particular relevance. Reporting on the first ever published "mapping" of serious organised crime in Scotland by the authorities, it ought to give us at least a slightly improved sense of what we are talking about when trading in the terms of organised criminality. Moreover, I think it is crucial for those of us who don't make a habit of reading the local tabloid media to understand that the style in which they report organised crime stories deviates significantly from those employed by the BBC et al. For that reason, we may not be fully appreciating the context in which Purcell's venal stupidity is being understood by the tabloids' more regular readers. Who are, after all, all potential voters.

Scotland's Organised Crime Map...

Three-odd years ago, I took a criminological course in the Netherlands on “organised crime”. The particular strand of illicit activity we focussed on was the international drugs market. Following known importation routes, supply structures and subsequent patterns of drug consumption in particular nations and communities. As Holyrood’s Justice Committee is finding out in its deliberations on the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, defining clearly what ‘organised crime’ is can prove rather vexing. As one struggles to put legislative intention into effect, success must be determined by including and excluding persons from the desired categories without tying oneself up into unnecessarily awkward definitional knots. My sense is that the Scottish Parliament will probably attempt some redefinition, which nevertheless is sufficiently open-textured to generate legal arguments and cases. Scots judges would be left, in the circumstances, to determine the appropriate ambit of meaning in individual, concrete cases. One Dutch author, drawing on their research defines serious organised crime as the following:

“There is organised crime, if groups that are primarily focused on generating profits, systematic use violence, that have severe consequences for society, and are capable of masking these crimes in a reasonable effective way, in particular by willing to use physical violence or rule out persons by means of corruption.”. (Fijnaut, C. et al. (1996) Inzake opsporing. Eindrapport georganiseerde criminaliteit in Nederland. Den Haag: Sdu. Bijlage V.)

So how would this apply to Scotland, what do we know about Scotland’s “organised” criminal enterprises? Well, a little more this week, perhaps, with the publication of some material from the first mapping exercise conducted by the still-youthful Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. On the 2nd June, it was announced that the Scottish Government have stumped up the cash which will fund the Scottish Intelligence and Co-ordination Unit tasked centrally with an ongoing “mapping” of such enterprises in Scotland. They are rather coy about how they defined 'organised crime' in their exercise, amongst other things. What follows is, as a result, rather impressionistic. It is also apt to rather under report the incidence of organised crime, or potentially give a misleading impressions about what is going on “on the ground” across the corporate life of criminal enterprises. The headline numbers drawn from this map were trailed in a number of the newspapers, but generally not interrogated very closely. What with the political paroxysms caused by the Brown Government flailing about in its guts like a burst slug, press attention is elsewhere.

Organised Crime in Scotland & the Media...

Interestingly, in my researches into how the Scots media talks about organized crime a few years ago, there is a radical discontinuity of approach between popular tabloids and the broader pages of the Herald and Scotsman. I found that more detailed reporting of organised crime characters in Scotland is largely populist, covered in the tabloid press in detail, often in a relatively cursory fashion by the more upmarket broadsheets. Associated are the shelf load of Scottish “real crime” books available, with their wistful, “No Mean City” authenticity, classically speaking Glaswegian patter. While the former often give extensive detail - however doubtfully it might be viewed - the latter section of the media tends only to give bare facts, ages and the ‘gangster’ moniker. Context, in particular, is shorn away in the broadsheet accounts. If the tabloids can be viewed as tending towards “folk-hero” depictions of certain known, identifiably Scottish characters – the middle-class papers simply render the criminal actors as unspecific, empty and ultimately unintelligible. Exceptions are sometimes made for well-heeled offender. You may recall the Newton Mearns solicitor who was implicated and convicted after a high-profile “drugs-bust” in Barlinnie prison. She carried the heroin into the prison during Sunday visits to her incarcerated clients. Less attention was paid, however, when the “ringleader” of the prison gang, one George “Goofy” Docherty, was violently murdered in the centre of Glasgow. Run across and reversed over by a car several times, he was also stabbed before his attacker fled. It is my understanding that the use of knives or other sorts of cold steel remains a common aspect of gang-inspired violence in Scotland, on account of the prevalence of Kevlar suits. I wouldn't want to suggest that the tabloid accounts simply glamorise organised crime. Indeed, they can be exceedingly condemnatory. The primary point I want to make is that they talk about organised crime as if its creatures are familiar characters of local reference, known and notorious. For those of us who more usually gather our news from the middle-class press, this difference of tone is quite striking. Associated with the lofty, bemused examinations of crime characters conducted in the pages of the Herald or Scotsman, is a lack of detail. Serious organised crime may feature as a social problem, but the particular features and characters and identities of the social actors implicated remain entirely occult.

Information in the public domain, however, remains fairly limited. To give you some idea of the curious potential and creative ways which groups transport their goods, a particularly vivid example is provided by the case of Torres v. H.M. Advocate (1998). The master of the boat Dimar-B was convicted of sailing from Colombia to the extreme north west of Scotland in Oldany, Sutherland where dinghies made landfall, placing the cocaine in trucks to be transported south. The distance sailed must be 7360 km or 4573 odd miles across the Atlantic. Howarth (Christopher Eric) v. H.M. Advocate describes a similar expedition to Scotland in 1992. These examples are too specific to sculpt trends from. However, they fulfil a useful function in illustrating the significant potential for clandestine smuggling in low-population areas along the Western Coast, and explain the broad scope reported by the Mapping Exercise.

In general, I’m obviously not in a position to judge the police evidence one way or the other on how well it actually represents the world. A few obvious limitations can be pointed out, however. As I mentioned, we don’t know what definitions or conceptualisations of organised crime the police are using, and hence, what they are excluding. Secondly, obviously the reporting is based on knowledge, and hence, won’t record as yet undetected criminal enterprises. Thirdly, I find the division of reports rather suspicion. For example, the Serious Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency are recorded as contributing 59 groups. Were there crossovers in reporting? If so, who takes precedence in the “recording” of a group, the local police force or the SCDEA? It isn’t potentially hugely significant, however there is room for disparity.

The fourth, broader point emanating from this, is the understandable but essential weakness of the evidence – it skims across the surface, flitting as a skater, leaving only a blur of colour, and none of the important qualifying texture. However explicably in terms of keeping operational knowledge quiet, and whatever the ostensible increasing transparency of the exercise – I’d propose a measure of quiet scepticism about the figures as presented. Nevertheless, exploring the detail a little more closely is, I think, potentially revealing…

Scottish Serious Organised Crime Mapping Exercise: Analysis of the Detail

Per the brass-throated Old Testament prophets, the headline is that the report identifies 4066 individuals involved in 367 “serious organised crime groups” attended by 241 “specialist links” constituted of crooked lawyers, blind-eyeing money scrubbers, shameless profit turners and over the barrel process servers. The research, they suggest was conducted between November 2009 and April 2009. The trickling information streams flowed from Scotland’s eight police forces, as well as the British Transport Police (BTP), UK Border Agency (UKBA) and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA). HMRC, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPOS) also slung their oar into the mix, as if we weren’t already replete with dizzying acronyms.

Of the total 367 “groups”, the breakdown per force and associated agencies is related as follows:




Strathclyde Police152

Lothian and Borders Police 35

Tayside Police 29

Fife Constabulary 24

Grampian Police 16

Dumfries and Galloway 6

Northern Constabulary 25

Central Scotland Police 15

92% involved in drug crimes = 336/367

8% not involved in drug crimes = 31/367

48% involved in drug importation and/or distribution 176/367

53 and 20 SOCGS known to source cocaine and heroin outside the UK

125 groups involved in dealing cannabis

If we are defining “drug crimes” here as offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, there is a relatively limited list, and about seven primary offence categories. There are (a) restrictions on importation and exportation of controlled drugs (b) restrictions on production and supply of controlled drugs (c) restriction of possession of controlled drugs (d) occupiers who knowingly permit the foregoing on their premises (e) smoking opium, or lounging in opium dens (!) (f) prohibitions for supplying articles for administering or preparing controlled drugs and (g) various regulatory offences. So if we take “involvement in drug crimes” as the larger category, and believe that 176/336 (52%) are distributing or importing – and distribution, after all, can encompass the very large and the very small forms of substance dissemination - what are the other 48% listed as engaged in criminalised “drug” activities up to? Particularly since there is apt to be cross-over within these categories, this is difficult to tease out. Presumably also, if the macro-category is a binary “engaged in some drug crime or engaged in no drug crime”, there are wildly varying levels of actual criminality. On this measure, even if one of their “associates” was known to enter commercial relations for the sale of cannabis, the whole organisation could be coded as an organisation involved in drug crime. Moreover, variation in extent is obviously not accounted for in the public figures. Hence, the implications are difficult to scrutinise closely.

81 (22%) involved in money laundering.

161/367 SOCGS involved in serious violence or murder (44%)

77% of groups involved in violence were from Strathclyde area

Difficult to analyse the bald statement, since it is difficult to determine whether “violence” here is given the same meaning as “serious violence” is above. If so, and we “read into” our analysis that the 77% figure relates to the anterior statistic, then 124 violent serious organised crime groups are based in the Strathclyde region. Compare this to the total identified by the Strathclyde force, this would suggest that 124/152 of the groups identified by the mapping exercise in Strathclyde are violent. That is a whopping 82% of the total for Strathclyde which are identified as violent. When compared to the total figure, violent criminal organisations emanating from Strathclyde would make up 34% of the total serious organised crime “picture” in Scotland. However, the strong caveat is that this analysis is based on the assumption that “violence” and “serious violence and murder” in the public summary of the mapping exercise’s findings have the same meaning. If that assumption is false, and that the “violence threshold” is different in the different sections, the figures of 80% and 124/152 groups identified as violent could be well wide of the mark.

42 SOCGs involved in theft (11%) and 40 in fraud (11%)

19 involved in sexual offences, 10 involving human trafficking

202 have access to firearms – that is 55% of the total.

Interestingly, far more than are identified in the violence or serious violence categories earlier. Turning to the statistical information about individual characteristics of our 4,066 professional criminal souls, the archetypes are perhaps predictable. Males constituted 89% of the “personnel” mapped out, suggesting also that the age range amongst these persons is mid to late 20s. 82% of these are identified as White European (3334) while 383 were identified by the moron-moniker of “BME” – presumably meaning “black and minority Ethnic”. This constitutes around 9.4% of the total. Almost half of this second category were foreign nationals. Counting up the maths, the odd thing is that between these two groups – one doesn’t reach the total “headline” figure of 4,066. The “white European” category amounts, by my reckoning, to 3334, which when added to the 383, amounts only to 3717 persons. Leaving us shy a not insignificant 349 souls in the reported statistics. Where are they? That “ME” – minority ethnic – is potentially vastly encompassing. On the surface, however, we don’t know who is or who is not included in it and whether it is a big “ethnic other” category, or whether further distinctions were made and are simply not being reported. Its impossible to guess accurately a priori, leaving another unanswered question about the data, as it is presented.

Finally, my own favourite category. Or to put it a bit less glibly, the category most corruptly implicated in legitimating organised crime capital and activities - the “specialists”. The map identifies 241 “specialists” operating in Scotland. As opposed to mere “members or associates” , specialists are engaged for their particular knowledge of public systems. An interesting potential distinction to be drawn here – and which I suspect isn’t being drawn in the 241 number - is between those who are simply experts in fumigating awkward monies by dint of practice, and those who are in some sense “specialists” already in matters accounting, financial or legal – and who are tempted by the possibilities of being involved with dodgy customers. The “character” the study seems to be presenting is the latter – someone you consult, rather than an “in-house” corrupt counsel. In particular, a measure of operational independence seems to be suggested by the numbers cited as having “connections with more than one of the identified groups.” While the mapping exercise claims that 80% work with one group connection only – that is roughly 193 or 194 “specialists” known to be involved with only one group - that leaves 48 individuals known to have connections with more than one. It is a pity that we don’t have a breakdown of which industries these 241 people – or the 48 – are involved in. Nevertheless, these shadowy facilitators and accomplices with their complicities are a rotten lot. Important to note too that this means that of the 367 groups – at least 194 are connected up with specialist advisers: that is 53% of the total groups identified for Scotland. It is likely, especially since under-reporting is a distinct issue across this mapping exercise – that that number is higher, potentially much higher.


  1. No silk Purcell from a SOCGs ear then.

    What a grubby, threatening and complex world - perhaps little wonder at the apparent reluctance to clean it up.

    In my father's wide and weird collection of books there is a small text by Charles Sale, 'The Specialist' - Lem Putt, a privie builder, who was consulted on the variety of ways and means to be rid of human waste that the common man was either unwilling or unable to do for himself. How times don't change.

  2. It is sordid, certainly, Clarinda.

    And you are bang on with the complexity. While I welcome this greater honesty from the polis about their understanding of these rackets, big and small, the businesses' unspoken texture and the gamut of organisations encapsulated by this mapping report really leaves most questions begging.

    The crimes of dishonesty and the sins of their complicit creatures may be pretty loathsome - but the violence and the possibility for violence which the exercise enumerates strikes me as the report's most concerning dimension.

  3. It is also worth mentioning, or perhaps stressing as I didn't in the above post, that the detail provided on violence in Strathclyde tells us at least in general terms, what sort of folk we're talking about Councillors being implicated with. Not charming artful dodgers, these.

  4. Apologies for coming here late.

    It is the accepted wisdom that organised crime seeks to infiltrate the normal world of politics and law enforcement, especially if you believe the former head of the SCDEA.That, the web throughout Scotland is the criminal organisations.

    Maybe we have it wrong.

    Maybe the criminality we are seeing can be better explained and understood by placing the Scottish Labour Party at the centre of the web and the erstwhile criminals are its servants.

    The Labour Party, in West Central Scotland is an organised criminal organisation?

    In which case why is the SCDEA not focussing pro-actively on them.