- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

LONDON — The British government, in the biggest shake-up in the nation’s crime fighting in four decades, yesterday announced a plan for an elite agency modeled on the FBI.

With more than 5,000 agents, the Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) will target drug barons, international kingpins in human trafficking, major fraud perpetrators and Mafia-style gangsters.

The agency’s mandate, however, will prevent it from dealing directly with terrorism or murder cases — a restriction that is certain to draw sharp criticism in months before it is up and running by 2006. Scotland Yard and intelligence services will continue to tackle terrorism, and murder will be left largely to the attention of local police.

Home Secretary David Blunkett, in announcing the new force, left no doubt as to its target, the organized criminals who “make their millions from human misery: trafficking in drugs and people, engaging in fraud and extortion.”

The business of organized crime is estimated at $75 billion a year in Britain.

The SOCA’s fight against national and international gangs will be funded by the British central government. Its creation marks the biggest shake-up in British policing structure since 1964, when the boundaries of the existing 43 forces in England and Wales were established.

According to the Home Office, the agency will absorb the current National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and will take under its wing investigators from customs and excise and the immigration service.

The SOCA will remain separate from Scotland Yard, which although a London-based force assists in crime cases across the land. The new agency is supposed to centralize the task of dealing with organized crime, and Scotland Yard will take a back seat in this area.

Although its task will not include getting directly involved with the fight against terrorism, the SOCA is expected to work closely with Britain’s MI5 and MI6, the two key intelligence agencies whose jobs include dealing with terrorist threats.

Mr. Blunkett’s announcement was barely hours old when news reports appeared saying the agency will be headed by one of America’s most famous crime fighters, William Bratton, a former New York City police commissioner and current police chief in Los Angeles.

But a spokesman from the Los Angeles Police Department denied the reports.

“Chief Bratton has a long road ahead of him here in Los Angeles. He has planned on being here for at least the full five years of his present contract,” which expires in 2008, Lt. Art Miller said yesterday.

Whoever gets the job will hold the title of director general and will be charged with the agency’s day-to-day operations. He will report directly to the home secretary, a key member of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet.

In addition to police officers, the agency is expected to bring into its ranks civilian computer specialists, intelligence experts, specialist prosecutors and lawyers trained in dealing with organized crime, Home Office officials said.

“We must become better organized, more sophisticated and more technologically capable than the criminals,” Mr. Blunkett said. “We must not just keep pace, but we have to get ahead of them.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed the move, although it warned that the government would have to make sure that the new agency avoids what a spokesman described as “U.S.-style arguments between ‘feds’ and local police.”

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