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Detective's casebook: modern slavery and working with Romania

Last week, a joint operation between Northamptonshire and the Romanian police resulted in seven arrests across the two countries following an investigation into a modern slavery OCG.

Operation Brooker, which had been ongoing for 18 months, identified and safeguarded 27 people and was made possible by collaboration between the two forces. 

Prosecutions will now be followed through in Romania, as additional investigation continues into money laundering which was caught up within the criminal activity. 

The gang is believed to have been operating since 2018. They would lure people who were struggling with unstable financial positions in Romania over to the UK with the promise of jobs. 

Upon arrival in the UK, the gang would take away ID documents and phones, forcing their victims to work for 16 hours a day, seven days a week without basic food and healthcare. 

They had links with local companies including factories and car valeting sites where their victims would work. The OCG would take what little salaries they got, however, using it to fund a luxurious lifestyle back in Romania.  

DCI Nick Cobley, from Northamptonshire’s Serious and Organised Crime Team spoke to Police Oracle about the operation and the logistics of working across borders in what was the first Joint Investigation Team (JIT) process for the force. 

A JIT is a an agreement set out to facilitate international cooperation between competent authorities, both judicial and law enforcement, of two or more states. It has a set time period and a specific purpose. It is led by a member of the country in which the JIT is based and it is the law of that country which decides the JIT’s actions. They are coordinated by Europol and Eurojust, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation.

It was the Romanian police who first reached out to Northamptonshire, via their equivalent of an organised crime unit, with intelligence that an OCG they were investigating were also operating in Corby, Northampton. 

An initial meeting was set up via Interpol. Operational meetings were conducted online as neither side were able to travel during the pandemic. 

DCI Cobley said:  “It was a massive learning curve from start to finish. With that JIT process I suppose there’s always teething problems with understanding, but actually it’s been very fluid, the advisors from Interpol and Eurojust have been really useful, we were supported by other forces as well, including Derbyshire, as well as regional colleagues.” 

Initially the plan had been for Northamptonshire to own the prosecution, but as things progressed, a lot of the victims identified had returned to Romania and others were thinking of returning. 

“We then took the approach that they had returned and the Romanians had intelligence that the OCG would be returning for their Orthodox Christian Easter holiday,” DCI Cobley explained. 

“So ultimately it made sense for them to take the prosecution forward. [The view from our CPS] was that we would see what falls out of enforcement and if there’s some secondary investigations, which it looks like there are now, our team would lead on those bits.” 

There were slight differences between the Romanian and English processes that were uncovered during the operation. 

“They have their prosecutors there, they lead on setting the strategy a lot earlier than the police do. So my equivalent SIO was almost a CPS lawyer. 

“Their arrest day is a lot further along, almost where we would charge or summons. They would then present a small scale case to the court the next day. 

“A lot of their evidence disclosure has to occur at that court process on day one, just so the judge is satisfied that there’s a case there.” 

Given the nature of the investigation, however, this did not pose a huge problem. 

“I’m a force lead for modern slavery and human trafficking, I’ve found that, as long as there’s not an obvious risk where you have to go through that door, you need to [gather as much evidence as you can] because that’s how you get that confidence with the victims [...] This was always an agreed tactic by both sides,” DCI Cobley explained.

One of the central differences between the two forces that DCI Cobley came up against, was the approach to victims on the day of the arrests. A reception centre had been set up for victims with services including the British Red Cross. 

“The main aim really is safeguarding and sorting future support provisions but then within that, you would look at trying to recover evidence from them, whether that will be down the line when they feel more comfortable or whether they would be up for it that day and is it beneficial to do it that day for the investigation,” DCI Cobley said. 

He explained that the Romanians were interested in the list of potential victims, who if they were able to speak with on the day could help build their case. 

“We have an English approach as to how we speak to victims, following a very victim-focussed investigation, steered by the guidelines we have around ABE (Achieving Best Evidence) interviews and things like that and how we would record that evidence,” he said. 

“The Romanian viewpoint seemed a lot more formalised around offering legal advice, and having listened to the process, you could argue it’s a little bit more directive. 

“They wanted to crack on and take their victims, still in an ethical way, but I had to arbitrate a little bit to keep both sides happy and ensure that the evidence was going to be tangible and in a format that was acceptable wherever it landed.” 

For the operation, in addition to collaboration with the Romanian Police, Northamptonshire made use of NGO Justice and Care’s victim navigator scheme which sees independant navigators assigned to victims ensuring they get support they need and aiming to improve the chances of convictions. 

They were also supported by TOEX (Tackling Organised Exploitation Programme) which provides intelligence and analytical expertise with regards to organised exploitation. 

The operation was successful and Northamptonshire continue to investigate other potential criminal activities which came to light during the investigation. 

For DCI Cobley: “Modern slavery is a hidden crime, it’s a stone you turn over and you find a whole manner of different links to potential criminality and in this case foreign nationals. So that cross border approach, nationally and internationally is vital with understanding who you’re dealing with. 

“It’s been really refreshing knowing that there’s like-minded people in Romania [...] it reassures you that if you ask for that help and you go looking for it, there is options out there.” 

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