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Detective Sergeant Rich Cook has been flying the flag for West Midlands Police at Europe’s crime-fighting HQ in The Hague.

During an eight-month secondment to Europol – the EU’s law enforcement agency – he worked with police forces across the Continent to disrupt organised crime gangs and catch cross-border crooks.

His role as part of an intelligence cell was to ensure information on UK crooks – especially ones suspected of being part of wider crime networks in Europe – was shared with overseas forces, while alerting cops back home to new crime trends and foreign national offenders.

Intelligence is vital to fighting crime… and in our latest WMPeople interview DS Cook explains how a phone-call made in Dudley can potentially bring down a crime group in Donetsk!

Rich Cook

How did you land the role and what was your responsibility in The Hague?

I was keen to get involved in the pilot; it was an exciting opportunity and a chance to demonstrate my experience of investigating serious organised crime. I was interviewed for the position and had to show how my investigatory and intelligence background could help progress investigations.

I was attached to the UK Liaison Bureau (UKBL) at Europol to provide support to UK Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) – including the West Midlands ROCU which includes Staffordshire, Warwickshire and West Mercia – and sharing intelligence with European colleagues concerning the supply of firearms and exploring opportunities to seize weapons.

My secondment lasted from October 2014 to May this year; it’s part of a pilot programme assessing the value of having officers from UK police regions embedded in Europol.

What exactly is Europol?

Europol supports the sharing of intelligence between police in European countries and helps co-ordinate joint investigations between forces. It is made up of 28 countries, in the main within the EU, but also includes representatives from Australia, the USA and Columbia.

Europol can assist with enquiries that are classified as ‘serious organised crime’ and which impact on two or more member states.

Europol has been involved in numerous seizures of drugs, firearms, people trafficking and cybercrime – these may well prevent criminals from getting hard drugs or guns onto the streets of the West Midlands. So although Europol activity in The Hague may seem a bit distant, far removed from life in the West Midlands, its activity can have a direct impact on protecting our communities at home.

But like with many things in policing, Europol is only as good as the intelligence you put in.

Did your secondment come about because of a belief police forces across Europe, including the UK, were working too much in isolation?

Previously there was only a representative from the Met Police and Police Scotland in Europol’s UK Desk. It was recognised there was a danger important intelligence from police forces in the rest of the UK could be missed and so secondment opportunities like mine were developed to plug that gap.

It’s important we show criminals that borders are no barrier to justice and that we have the capability to work as one to target organised crime.

Europol’s UK desk is made up of representatives from the National Crime Agency, Border Force, Customs & Excise, criminal records office and counter terrorism. In total there are 12 people on the UK Liaison desk.

Rich Cook

What does that “intelligence sharing” look like on the ground then?

Intelligence products can be an analysis of crime patterns, information on emerging crime tactics, the movement of suspected criminal gangs, or information on suspects, vehicles, communications, properties or events.

While I was in post I was able to share the UK’s response on gas attacks at cash machines, as Portugal had recently seen the offence for the first time; likewise we were informed of a group of Albanian / Romanian nationals who were attending large music festivals to steal mobile phones as part of organised pick pocketing. That intelligence was shared across neighbouring countries to build into police plans for similar events. 
We had a good example recently where an emerging tactic of crooks attacking lorries while on the move was highlighted by eastern European police – it means UK police could be on the look-out for such offences, and the modified vehicles they use to commit the crime where they cut a flap into the roof that opens like a sardine tin to allow them to climb out and onto the bonnet.
Sometimes it’s about sharing best police practice: Danish Police wanted advice around mobile police stations and Polish police on the use of firearms in public order situations.

Was there a ‘typical’ day for you in The Hague?

A typical day involved using secure email systems to share intelligence and liaise with other Europol members over UK nationals suspected of travelling in Europe, particularly the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal to commit crime. It could be to arrange for drugs to be delivered to the UK, payments to be made for drugs, to identify individuals to be trafficked into the UK for the sex trade or for forced labour, or for stolen cars to be driven across.

So, for example, I might receive a message from West Midlands police stating they were investigating a Joe Bloggs for trafficking of drugs and that intelligence suggests he’d been calling Spanish and Dutch phone numbers and it’s believed he travelled to Spain recently. I would send a secure message to my counterparts in Spain and the Netherlands requesting intelligence checks on Joe Bloggs and the phone numbers.

At the same time Europol analysts would cross-check the names and phone numbers against their intelligence databases; this would show if the names or numbers have featured on any other country’s investigations previously. Depending on what comes back this can trigger joint investigations, formal agreements with other countries to target a criminal group.

Towards the end of my tenure we were formalising two joint investigations with the West Midlands ROCU and European forces concerning drug supply, while the Met Police had 16 joint investigations on the go.

How much intelligence flows through Europol?

That’s hard to quantify but Europol has a huge intelligence database and numerous analysts that are able to produce very good intelligence products to target offenders. The flow of intelligence between the UK and Europol is ever increasing whether it be a simple request on an individual or joint investigations.

There have been seizures of drugs and firearms due to the involvement of Europol and working with other countries, ranging from drugs seized from parcels at airports or Europol being involved in initiatives like Operation Trivium in the West Midlands (pictured).

Prior to the pilot starting very few intelligence requests were submitted to Europol from UK Police (outside of the Met and Police Scotland) but when I left submissions were at around 120 a month. From my experience most intelligence requests from the UK are sent to the Dutch, Spain, Ireland, Poland and Albania and the majority of intelligence concerns drug supply, people trafficking and money laundering.

Rich Cook

Can you give some examples of recent Europol successes?

Last month French Police, supported by Europol, hit a Moldovan crime group involved in large-scale property crime in France and Belgium. As a result of police in all these countries, through Europol, 12 people were arrested and 13 properties searched.

The operation began at a restaurant in Paris where the suspects had gathered to attend a wedding! The group are suspected of targeting bicycle storage facilities and specialised shops, stealing high-value bikes and moving them to Moldova and the Ukraine.

And in June another international police operation coordinated by Europol led to the seizure of two consignments of cannabis worth £300,000 and two arrests. Led by Moldovan police working with Italian and Slovakian police, one shipment was intercepted on a ferry bound for Italy while more drugs were found in a car en route to Poland.

Did you have an opportunity to explore The Hague when off duty?

My apartment in The Hague was a 10-minute walk to Europol…handy as I also worked out-of-hours on call to fulfil any intelligence requests.

While in The Hague I was able to explore the city’s art galleries and museums. From April to October there are also a number of beach restaurants: they are manmade, sandy beaches and act as the first line of defence in flooding as the Netherlands is below sea level. It’s a bit strange to walk up a hill to get on the beach!

There are a number of really nice nearby towns like Delft and Lieden which have a great deal of history – pottery and Pilgrims – so again really good places to visit.

In order to get to The Hague from the UK, you fly into Schippol airport which services Amsterdam, so quite often I would be on a plane travelling with Stag and Hen parties which was interesting!

How would you sum up your time with Europol?

It was a fantastic experience working overseas on behalf of West Midlands Police and getting a taste for how law enforcement operates in other countries. Secondments like this emphasise what an international community the police force is and when you meet foreign counterparts you know instantly you have one thing in common: we’re all after the bad guys!