Some try to brazen it out and stride past nonchalantly, others spot the sniffer dog and turn tail. The reactions are often the biggest giveaway, but not as big a giveaway as the stash of cocaine, MDMA or cannabis shoved deep in the pocket.
We joined a large team of officers – made up of Specials, neighbourhood team officers, PCSOs, response officers along with officers in plainclothes, British Transport Police officers, Exeter council licensing officer and a fire officer from Devon and Somerset Fire Service – as they carried out an operation at Exeter’s two main rail stations and several city centre pubs and clubs.
Key to the operation on Friday night was Jet and Holly – two sniffer dogs. Both black Labradors – Jet is based in Bodmin, Cornwall while Holly is from the Dorset Police patch – their handlers explain at the briefing in Heavitree police station how their dogs react to drugs and what the spotters and other officers need to look out for.
Police dog handler Steve Waters explains how Jet’s presence often is as effective as her nose in identifying drugs, as the sight of her can often spur people into very obvious avoidance reactions.
Within minutes of deploying to Central and Exeter St David’s stations, this is evident as some rail passengers turn towards the ticket gate and immediately turn 180 degrees at the site of Jet, happily sniffing each person as they pass through the barrier.
Plainclothes spotters at Exeter Central station move in and are quickly joined by uniformed officers and a search later, drugs are either discovered or handed over.
A 16-year-old boy who tried to avoid Jet is one of those searched and a small amount of cannabis found. Another is a supposed grown-up who makes a very big deal about not having his ticket, claiming his partner who had gone ahead had his ticket. When he encounters Jet he makes comment that he’d been “smoking weed all morning”.
That’s enough for the BTP officers to politely take him to one side and explain he’s going to be searched. He’s demonstrably unhappy at this and attempts to reach into his pocket before he is stopped. The next 20 minutes includes him angrily remonstrating with the dog handler and the BTP officers, waving his phone about as he films his situation, claiming that he had said he’d used CBD oil and how his human rights were being infringed and how the officers needed to educate themselves about ‘CBD cannabis oil’.
Jet is oblivious to the man’s rant and instead trails a young girl several yards as she goes through the barrier. She is stopped and immediately admits she is in possession of cannabis. She’s 14.
Another man, accompanied by two women, is stopped after all three got to the top of the stairs and turned about sharply, heading down again after spotting Jet. Plain clothes officers, accompanied by Specials and neighbourhood officers, carry out searches and two grams of MDMA – all neatly packaged in several cigarette paper-wrapped ‘bombs’ – are seized.
Another couple of adults are stopped by plainclothes officer after they turn back over the station bridge and hey-presto, another seizure of cannabis.
Police handler Steve Harrison and his dog Holly is, surprisingly, less busy over at Exeter St David’s station, although Holly’s nose did pick out a 17-year-old. He has no drugs on him, but was keen to disclaim a small cannabis grinder which he had been carrying ‘for a friend’.
There’s a brief break back at the station for a feed and another briefing by Special constable Steve Ashford who has spent many weeks gathering all the officers together, sorting shifts, alerting partnership agencies and the police control room, agreeing vehicle use and effectively putting together the entire operation while also working as a member of police staff. By 10.50pm we are out again – accompanied by a fire officer and council licensing manager – to target several pubs and clubs.
First up is The Queens Head on Pinhoe Road. Something is found inside – to much laughter, it turns out to be a hard drug of a different kind – Viagra.
Down by the Quay area of Exeter officers pop into the Move club. En-route Jet spooks a young girl by indicating on her. She’s in floods of tears and readily admits she lives in a house where one of the housemates regularly smokes cannabis.
During the briefing to officers, Pc Waters notes how Jet and Holly can indicate a positive for three reasons – the person has drugs on them, the person could have had drugs on them in the last 24 hours or they could have been in close proximity to drugs.
The Chevalier Inn on Fore Street beckons us and despite the loud music pumping out, Holly has a good rummage around and enjoys a few friendly strokes afterwards from passerby.
At the nearby Rosies it begins jovially enough but one punter, who has gone back inside immediately after police have entered, is seen making a bee-line for the toilets. He is stopped, taken outside and across the road for a search but the situation escalates as he demands loudly that his friends should film the scene.
The officers calmly continue their work, with one explaining the legal position regarding suspicions, his rights to documentation relating to the stop search and the complaints process. There’s a chance things could turn nasty for despite there being several officers in attendance, they are always going to be outnumbered by drunken revellers.
Deeper into town and the operation sees the officers and dogs visit The Terrace at the Guildhall, The Vault, the Phoenix arts venue bar, Timepiece and the Old Firehouse. At The Terrace one young man is furious at the number of officers taking part in the operation and loudly rounds on a number of them, while his friends make pitiful attempts to calm him.
Around the corner a fight is reported to have broken out and some of the officers are asked to assist response officers who are already on the scene.
Inside the Phoenix venue beer garden one female reveller appears to entirely miss the officers’ bright yellow fluorescent jackets, hats and uniforms and starts stroking the cute black labrador before the penny drops and she is heard loudly exclaiming, “Oh God, it’s a drugs dog!”
A few minutes later at another bar the council’s licensing manager chats jovially with security doormen and the designated premises supervisor because, at the end of the day, each club or pub wants to be able to return to the council’s licensing committee with a clean bill of health and a renewed licence to continue trading.
Indications on people by Jet and Holly sees people brought out onto the public pathways for a search, or avoidance behaviour gives them the same treatment. They don’t mind the sniffer dog so much, but the press and TV camera bothers them greatly.
By the end of the night – or rather by nearly 3am – there have been seven stop searches at the city’s two rail stations and a further 16 stop searches at the city’s pubs and clubs. Between them several people have handed over a small haul of cocaine, MDMA and cannabis and over the next few days they will all be turning up at the police station as voluntary attenders.
In addition, a decent amount of “intel” has been gathered by officers about drug use and potential suppliers in the city and there will be follow ups by other police teams as a result.
Insp Colin Harper, of Devon and Cornwall Police said: “This was a well-supported policing operation that was organised by the Special Constabulary. We utilised passive drug dogs and officers from BTP, Special Constables, Neighbourhood and core response officers, also in attendance was the licencing manager for Exeter City Council.
“The message I would like to get across is that drug use and dealing has anti-social behaviour implications which have a negative impact on the night time economy community and surrounding residential community areas.
“The use of the passive drugs dog does not target individuals, the dog scans the environment to detect trace of controlled drug and follows it to the source whereby it will indicate where the source comes from thus not directly targeting individuals and giving the impression police are singling out people.
“By working in partnership with BTP shows a united policing approach in tackling drug enabled crime on the train network. By visiting licenced premises we are giving reassurance to members of the public that the premises are being properly run and to reduce the overall fear of crime.
“Additionally to encourage responsible management of licensed premises by providing police support to management and staff at licensed venues in implementing their ‘No Drugs’ policy.”