After successful six months, joint drugs taskforce targets new area of Oxford

Published: Wednesday, 27th March 2019

After a successful six months, Oxford’s joint taskforce to disrupt and tackle open drug dealing and drug taking in the city’s public spaces is set to move part of its work to a new area of the city.

The Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce – a partnership between Oxford City Council, Thames Valley Police and Oxfordshire County Council – launched in August last year as a direct response to rising concerns from Oxford residents about the amount of drug dealing and drug use taking place in public spaces.

Since then, the seven-strong taskforce has called back 259 members of the public to gain insight into drugs issues in their neighbourhood.

The taskforce – which is funded by Oxford City Council, Thames Valley Police and the Oxford Community Safety Partnership – includes a police sergeant, two police officers, two PCSOs, a police crime analyst and a City Council problem solving officer.

Its activity has included covert and high-visibility patrols, engagement in community meetings, needle clean-ups, and specific changes to public areas to discourage open drug dealing and drug use, including cutting back foliage to improve sightlines, installing CCTV cameras, providing additional lighting and moving public benches into more visible locations.

A large proportion of the taskforce’s time and resources are targeted to three hotspots of drugs activity in Oxford at a time. These locations are determined using data including needle finds and reports to the police or council from members of the public.

Initially the taskforce targeted Grandpont, Meadow Lane, and South Park for its work. After successful disruption activity in South Park, the taskforce then moved its activity to St Clement’s Car Park.

The taskforce has now moved its work from St Clement’s Car Park to two areas of East Oxford: An area between James Street, Bullingdon Road, Denmark Street and St Mary’s Road; and an area including the rest of St Mary’s Road and Hurst Street, part of Magdalen Road, and Essex Street, Hertford Street, Catherine Street, Sidney Street and Percy Street.

The work so far has seen:

  • Grandpont

The Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce has been working in Grandpont since August. The work in the area continues.

The area previously provided a discrete location for drug deals to take place, either in the woodland or in the properties of vulnerable City Council tenants.

Work by the Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce in the area so far has included:

  • Holding a joint day of action on 13 August – with Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service and the City Council’s green spaces and parks teams – to clear foliage and discarded needles across Grandpont
  • Cleared back foliage in the first week of January 2019 to improve sightlines along Whitehouse Road
  • Thames Valley Police officers have carried out regular disruption activity, including high-visibility patrols, in and around Riverside Court, which is an Oxford City Council-owned sheltered housing block, to deter drug dealing
  • Worked with the County Council to improve the lighting in Friars Wharf , and install CCTV on a lamp post in Friars Wharf

The taskforce, working with the City Council’s housing team, plans to carry out longer-term improvements to Riverside Court, including installing CCTV cameras, to deter drug dealing from the area.

Vulnerable residents in Riverside Court had been targeted by drug dealers to ‘cuckoo’ their home. Cuckooing is where drug dealers take over a person’s home and use it to store or distribute drugs.

The taskforce is also working with South Oxfordshire Adventure Playground to move a storage container into a more open space. Drug dealers had been using the container to hide behind while dealing drugs. The container is set to be moved before the summer.

  • Meadow Lane

The Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce has been working in Meadow Lane since August. The work in the area continues.

Residents of Meadow Lane and the surrounding area were becoming increasingly concerned with open drug dealing and drug use in an area behind the football pitch. Drug dealers were using Jackdaw Lane to gain access to the area by car, and then park relatively out-of-sight behind trees.

There was also concern about discarded needles in the area, particularly in The Kidneys.

Work in the area has included:

  • Conducting three needle clean-ups, in partnership with local drug recovery service Turning Point. During the November clean-up, 21 needles and a knife were found; in February 11, needles were found; and in March just two were found
  • A series of plain-clothed and high-visibility police patrols of the area
  • Clearing foliage, with Oxford Direct Services and the City Council’s parks team, along Jackdaw Lane to improve lines of sight and make it harder for drug dealers and drug users to hide in the area
  • Working with the University of Oxford to ensure fir trees in the area are maintained to preserve light along Jackdaw Lane at night and improve residents’ feelings of safety

The taskforce also plans to install a CCTV camera to an Oxfordshire County Council-owned streetlight on the corner of Jackdaw Lane and Iffley Road.

  • South Park

The taskforce worked in South Park between August and October 2018.

The area was chosen due to an increase in calls from concerned residents on 101, combined with police intelligence that multiple County Drug Lines were operating at the bottom of the park, near the Morrell Avenue entrance.

County Lines is a form of drug distribution that sees organised crime groups from large cities, and move and supply drugs into smaller towns and rural areas. These groups often groom and coerce young people using threats, violence and intimidation.

The taskforce, in response to this, has:

  • Carried out covert and high-visibility patrols, including with Thames Valley Police’s mounted and dogs sections. One patrol resulted in the discovery of several weapons being found and cleared from foliage by a taskforce PCSO
  • Cleared foliage, with Oxford Direct Service and the City Council’s parks team, around the perimeter on 22 August 2018 to improve sightlines and prevent further weapons or drugs being hidden
  • Moved two benches inside the park to away from trees and into more visible locations
  • Lifted tree canopies in centre of park September to improve visibility across the park and stop drug dealers using the canopies as cover
  • Established links with the Friends of South Park to promote further information sharing and reporting

The taskforce has also been keeping close links with Oxford Direct Service’s parks team to ensure that foliage and canopies remain cut back.                                           

Sarah Lane, Friends of South Park committee member, said: “There were groups taking and selling drugs sitting on the benches and hanging out at the bottom of the park. With my children, sometimes they would go out and play in the park on their own, and I would say don’t go down, go up.

“The Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce did change things. I once noticed a group of young men arrive on their bikes, obviously looking to buy drugs, and they looked around and saw there was no one there and they just left. Those groups of people don’t seem to be hanging out here at the moment. It feels safer down the bottom of the park.                                             

“The more calls and complaints that they [the police] get, the bigger the case they have to put forward if they need more funding or if they need more assistance in different areas. It’s up to us to make a fuss, for them to show look there’s a problem.”

  • St Clement’s Car Park

The taskforce worked in St Clements Car Park between December 2018 and February 2019.

This area was chosen due to an increase in reports from local residents, including of iQ Alice House, about open drug use and anti-social behaviour in both the car park and Angel and Greyhound Meadow.

Since December, the taskforce has:

  • Carried out high-visibility patrols to discourage people from using drugs in the area
  • Worked with iQ Alice House and Oxford Direct Services on 15 February to remove benches outside the public toilets to deter drug use in the area. The Taskforce continue to provide support when needed
  • In March, moved logs that were used for seating in Angel and Greyhound Meadow into more visible locations to deter drug dealers and users from using them
  • Promoted local drug recovery service Turning Point in the area, including by putting up posters to advertise the service in the public toilets and nearby windows
  • Held two engagement events with the students of iQ Alice House on the 13 and 15 February. The taskforce, alongside Turning Point, were able to listen to students’ concerns and answer questions

The taskforce’s work has now been completed in St Clement’s Car Park and will move to the two areas of East Oxford, which have been chosen due to an increase in reports from members of the local community about open drug dealing and drug taking in the areas.

So far, the taskforce has linked with Bullingdon Road Neighbourhood Watch to discuss concerns and hear suggestions about what physical improvements could be made to prevent the area being targeted by drug users. The owners of a local business have also agreed to install new lighting, and signage about their CCTV system, in their car park.

The taskforce now plans to have an increased presence in the neighbourhoods through plain-clothed and high-visibility police patrols, actively engaging in neighbourhood watch meetings and displaying signage in the area to deter drug dealing and encourage reporting.

In January, two police officers from the Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce spotted a drug dealer walking along Cowley Road and acting suspiciously. The man was arrested and 105 wraps of Class A drugs were found ‘plugged’ in his anus. In February the man was jailed for 40 months.                                                 

Katherine Miles, founder of Bullingdon Road Neighbourhood Watch, said: “Last year we had a real issue, on Bullingdon Road and in the neighbouring streets, with on-street, day time drug dealing and drug usage. The deals were taking place particularly in the afternoon when children were returning home from school.

“We had a meeting with the drugs taskforce to discuss actions that could be taken to address our concerns as a community. Olly Bayliss, from the taskforce, came and did a walk-through of our street to look at issues and the environment that were perhaps contributing to making it a place where drug dealing was flourishing.

“Since then the taskforce has worked with owners of a local car park on our street to close that off and install CCTV to act as a deterrent for both the dealers and users in the local streets, and we have encouraged local residents to report issues to the police and council. As a result, we’ve seen a decrease in the number of syringes, the number of congregating users and also dealers on our street.

“I think reporting is the real key in all of this. Though more effective reporting, resources are able to be allocated to the places that need them the most – and hopefully that can reduce the issue, and not just move it into another area.”

All the taskforce’s work follows the principles of Clear, Hold and Build – clear the area of the drugs-related activity through arrests and disruption techniques; hold the area through high-visibility patrols, improving security and improved intelligence; and build back up the community use of the area through events, diversionary activities and neighbourhood watch schemes.

Uniquely within the Thames Valley, every single Oxford resident who reports drugs activity in their community to Thames Valley Police or Oxford City Council will receive a call back from the taskforce within a few days and then again after six weeks to follow up on the original report, check on the progress in the area, and inform the resident of actions that have been taken to tackle the issues reported.

These call backs have resulted in:

  • Photographs and videos of drug dealing, which allowed facial identification of the drug dealer
  • The same vehicle registration number being reported by two separate callers, enabling the taskforce to identify the suspect.
  • The taskforce becoming aware of vulnerable and elderly residents in drug hotspot areas, which enabled Thames Valley Police’s local Neighbourhood Policing Team to visit and reassure the residents

The taskforce is also working closely with Oxfordshire County Council’s social care team, Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group and Oxford’s drug recovery service Turning Point to help refer drug users into treatment and safeguard vulnerable children and adults who may be exploited by organised crime groups.

Drug treatment is freely available to everybody who is affected by drug use and there are no waiting times.

Oxford City Council, Thames Valley Police, Oxfordshire County Council and other support services are also working closely together to protect vulnerable people from cuckooing in Oxford. Cuckooing is where drug dealers take over a person’s home and use it to store or distribute drugs.

The City Council had 12 cases of cuckooing in 2018 and six cases in 2017. All the cases followed reports from neighbours or police officers about suspicious activity in City Council-owned properties in Oxford.

For more information about the Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce, including how to report concerns of drug dealing or taking in your neighbourhood, please visit: www.oxford.gov.uk/drugstaskforce.

Councillor Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council Board Member for a Safer and Greener Environment, said: “Nobody should have to put up with unchallenged drug dealing and taking in their neighbourhood. That’s why the Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce was set up to kick drugs out of the city. Six months in, the seven-strong taskforce has reduced the drugs trade in parts of East Oxford, enabling the taskforce to move from St Clement’s to Iffley Fields. Drug recovery help has become more freely available because our crackdown has been making drugs less freely available. And the public are becoming more confident that when they report something, it’s going to get sorted.                                                         

“Oxford City Council and our partners can only go on preventing the exploitation of vulnerable people in drugs slavery, tackle drug dealing and taking, and stop people from carrying knives, if the public continue to be our eyes and ears. The taskforce calls on all members of the public to go on reporting the drugs problems they see and supporting our work to clean up the streets.”

PS Guy Elkins, Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce, said: “So far, the taskforce has seen some really positive results in challenging drug dealing and drug taking in Oxford, particularly in areas such as South Park and Grandpont.

“My team and I are committed to ensuring that drug dealers face justice and we are working collaboratively with other agencies to provide the necessary support to assist drug users and drug victims with rehabilitation.

“Public participation has been key to informing us where to direct our resources in order to catch offenders. Our call back system has highlighted the importance of reporting suspicious activity to 101 and 999, as well as through our online form.

“As a result, there has been a noticeable reduction in drug activity and drug related antisocial behaviour in Oxford. This is a slow process and a huge project, but I am proud of the multi-agency work happening across the city and we will continue to utilise the resources available to us in this fantastic city.”

Assistant Chief Fire Officer Rob MacDougall said: “The County Council is working closely with the City Council, Thames Valley Police and other partners to protect our vulnerable residents from being exploited and ensure that our neighbourhoods are safe places for everyone to enjoy. In particular, we have welcomed the engagement and support of local communities to raise awareness of their concerns associated with open drug dealing and are working together to create a safer Oxfordshire.”