‘If that’s Moonshot, you’ve had it’ - on patrol with the police operation that’s made more than 400 arrests
- Credit: Archant
Even while off duty, driving around Great Yarmouth, Sergeant Nick Tungatt scribbles number plates on scraps of paper.
It's hard to switch off. Certain cars scream out to be stopped. It might be a crack in the windscreen or the manner of driving. It might be the echo of some old intel. Sometimes it's hard to say.
In an age of automation the old-fashioned 'policeman's nose' still has a place.
Later, back on duty in Yarmouth's police station, the sergeant will study the number plates, checking them against information the police have already recorded in their system, cars associated with known criminals and suspects.
While the combination of human observation and technologically-obtained data is nothing new to the police, it was given a jolt last May when Operation Moonshot was launched in Norfolk.
The operation aims to disrupt criminals around the resort's road networks using a variety of techniques including number-plate technology and intelligence.
Cameras across the county detect uninsured, untaxed or unroadworthy vehicles, along with those suspected of being linked to organised crime.
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Since the launch, officers in Great Yarmouth have made 421 arrests for offences including the supply of drugs, possession of drugs, possession of offensive weapons, theft, assault and driving under the influence of drugs, with 12 people jailed among 145 convicted.
They have seized 205 cars and £289,000 in assets.
The eastern leg of the operation is run from a control room in the town's police station, with Sgt Tungatt leading a team of six officers.
"The name of our game is disruption," he says.
"If somebody has been involved in a theft or burglary the officers will find any way to disrupt them. That might be a prosecution for no insurance on their car, they might not have a valid driving licence.
"We might know they are involved in crime but no evidence to arrest them, but know they are driving a car without insurance.
"We disrupt them from using the roads," he says.
On Tuesday (February 25) the team meets in the briefing room at the station, where the sergeant assigns the officers to three cars, one of which is unmarked, while a seventh officer remains in the control room, glued to computer screens, checking registration numbers against intelligence and alerting his colleagues on patrol.
PC Steve Lee, who has advanced driver training, sits behind the wheel of the unmarked car.
"We hunt in packs," Sgt Tungatt says, as the car prowls along South Quay.
Very soon he recognises a number plate and directs PC Lee to follow it. One purpose of following and stopping a car is to verify intelligence - which comes to police in various forms, from anonymous tip-offs, other officers - whether or not the owner is involved in crime.
The car is followed across Breydon Bridge and stopped on School Road, off the Vauxhall roundabout.
If there is anything suspicious, the sergeant explains, officers will search the car.
PC Lee spots traces of a white powdery substance on the dashboard, which the driver says is ketamine.
The car is searched, nothing is found, and the driver is administered a roadside drug test - the device can test only for cannabis or cocaine - which shows negative.
Sgt Tungatt lets the driver go. He says he was speaking coherently, not obviously under the influence of drugs, and presenting no threat.
Back on patrol, a green BMW without any documentation is spotted off Caister Road and followed toward the seafront. Turning onto North Drive, PC Lee switches on the sirens, accelerates and the car is stopped outside the Venetian Waterways.
Sgt Tungatt pounces into the back of the car, where he says the passenger had been attempting to hide a bag of white powder.
The man is handcuffed and arrested for possession of drugs.
"I've had people on the side of the road, on Facetime with their friends who say, 'Let's hope that's not Moonshot, cause if it is you've had it'," Sgt Tungatt says.
"We're taking the fight to them. We're not going to let the streets of Yarmouth become a playground for drugs."
Tuesday's patrol resulted in two further arrests: a man wanted in Wales for a year for breach of court order and another wanted in Thames Valley for harassment.
Three vehicles were seized for either no tax or insurance.