Neil Woods, an undercover police officer - and author of Good Cop, Bad War and Drug Wars, two books focused on the British drug war - has spent years tracking down some the United Kingdom’s most notorious and violent gangsters from Brighton to Nottingham to Derby and other urban areas plagued by poverty, destitution, criminal violence and in several cases - institutional and individual corruption.
When initially read, there is an expectation that Good Cop, Bad War will descend into worsening depravity and violence - just like every other book on the ‘War on Drugs’. This expectation was met, but in an unanticipated way. There is so much humanity and vulnerability in Woods’ experiences and these bring to life the costs of the drug war for the United Kingdom at a personal, local, regional and national level. The personal toll of the drug war is best reflected in Woods interaction and relationships with addicts on the street caught between the Mano Dura (Iron Fist) tactics of the police and the men and women profiting off of there misery and their need for a fix for their addiction.
However, there is that unmistakable British wit to be found in Woods’ recollections. From operatives furiously making out to maintain their cover to crashing a hipster party to find drugs and instead joining the hashish-fuelled party to drugging oneself with amphetamine to having the quiet confidence to outrun a heroin addict after being threatened with a samurai sword, there are some truly bizarre incidents and moments of dark humor to be found in his encounters with addicts, policeman, and gangs.
Nonetheless, overshadowing these brief moments of respite, the drug war saps and eats away at Woods’ sanity as he becomes exposed to the unethical tactics and strategies being increasingly used by police units to squeeze those suffering from addiction and combat drug trafficking. Violence begets violence, and as operations of the Drugs Squad intensify throughout Good Cop, Bad War, so to does the viciousness of those ruling gangland.
At first, beatings, verbal abuse and a hand around the throat are the favoured tool of intimidation of criminals. After criminals start being put away, they can hone their craft and radicalise their tactics in prison as the other gangs and transnational criminal organisations become smarter and more difficult to penetrate. Indebted, desperate addicts start being mutilated by screwdrivers, knives or acid is poured on their legs to root out undercover cops and induce fear in individuals and populations held hostage by the drug trade. Poverty and hopelessness becomes an asset for recruiting teenagers (de-facto child soldiers) to distribute crack and heroin to communities stricken by economic decay and the end of Industrial Britain.
Another major bust? The criminal empires start using sawn-off shotguns to execute families at point blank range and nail fellow gangsters to park benches if their loyalty comes into question. Police discovered working undercover are battered to an inch of their lives with baseball bats or murdered. Wives and girlfriends who come into contact with police or give testimonies are threatened with sexual violence and raped and addicts are run-down by gangsters in vehicles and stabbed to death.
The answer of the Special Operations Units and Drugs Squad is more surveillance, more undercover operations, mass arrests (including addicts being held hostage physically and psychologically by gangs), more weapons and counter-terrorism-style operations, predominantly against black, Asian and ethnic minorities living in the UK, and the poorest people across the country. These arrests get the SOU and DS slicker equipment and weapons, generate better statistics to feedback to superiors and lead to several, extremely well-led and coordinated police operations which put genuine psychopaths behind bars, but ultimately far from being a victory, TOCs learn and gangsters become more paranoid and violent in the quest to profit, compete for, and protect their vice grip on the drugs trade. It is a Pyrrhic victory, and the escalation in violence is brutalising both the police force and the criminals they are fighting. Those caught in the cross-fire and suffering the most are civilians - both those trying to get on with their lives, or those dependent on drugs. It is a punishing cycle.
Desperately, there are no political, social or economic solutions in this spiral of violence. In Woods’ narrative, police stations appear to be islets in a landscape of destitution, greyness and decay. It is an isolating experience for undercover operatives as they navigate derelict communities forgotten by those in power. Career politicians and government officials are largely absent.
The richest parts of London could be on another planet entirely as the centralisation of financial, economic and political power has left entire parts of the United Kingdom behind. In the vacuum of economic ruin, lack of mental health support, the absence of effective public health policies to support those with addiction, and increasing cuts to police manpower and social services, the misery inflicted on communities makes individuals vulnerable to infiltration by criminals and drug capital, or radicalisation from within. It is little wonder that such communities would turn to demagogues like Nigel Farage and Brexit’s populism when so many towns up and down the country are plagued by violence and poverty, and neglected by government.
Good Cop, Bad War does not explain why the war started or the politics of Westminister (this comes later in Drug Wars) surrounding the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, however Woods’ life as an undercover operative, his very human interactions with drug users and criminals and the evolution of the drug war in the United Kingdom demonstrate very effectively that military solutions do not work. This prohibition blueprint has failed abroad and it has failed in the United Kingdom, and above all the ‘War on Drugs’ has not addressed the root causes forcing people into the mafia, gang-violence and drug addiction.
The conflict has not only torn communities apart, divided the police and public, and enpowered criminals groups, it has allowed corruption to seep into the criminal justice system and police forces. Woods’ experiences become a microcosm of everything wrong with the ‘War on Drugs’, and show how this system of escalation - whether it be the mass-graves of Mexico, the death-squads of President Duerte slaughtering drug users, or the hyper-violent tactics and police brutality against immigrants and black communities in the United States - has been an exercise in futility. Only death and destruction follow with prohibition, and Good Cop, Bad War brings this war to life in a man’s thrilling but heartbreaking encounter with organised crime.
This is pulsating page-turner by Neil Woods and J.S Rafaeli which brings every encounter and scene to life. Full of charm, dark humor, moments of tension and terror, and heartbreak, Good Cop, Bad War is an exceptional introduction to the British drug war. It is written with heart, vulnerability and humanity, and brings invaluable first hand experiences to those suffering from the consequences of misguided political and economic policies, and the brutal crime war being waged on our streets.