Nearly four times more guns were seized from criminals on the streets of Leeds in 2013 than the previous year, the Yorkshire Evening Post can reveal.
A specialist police team set up to tackle firearms crime in the city confiscated 27 weapons from criminals over the course of last year – up from seven in 2012.
The figures are predominantly made up of shotguns and sawn-off shotguns, in many cases stolen from legitimate owners.
It comes as police revealed there is a growing trend of organised criminals forcing “vulnerable” people to store guns for them in order to avoid the automatic minimum five-year prison term for possessing a firearm.
Those leading Operation Quartz said the increase in seizures was due to improved police tactics rather than the proliferation of guns – and vowed the crackdown would continue.
While the number of guns found rose, the number of incidents involving firearms dropped – from 363 in the 12 months to November 2012 to 294 in the following 12 months.
Detective Superintendent Pat Twiggs, who oversees Operation Quartz, said: “Quartz is intelligence-led – and it’s starting to target the right people. I’ve no doubt removing these people from the streets has significantly contributed to the drop in incidents.”
Mr Twiggs said there were actually fewer guns available. But he added that criminals were using new tactics, including coercing people – many with drug or alcohol problems – into holding weapons for them.
“One of the trends we’re noticing is that organised criminals are using vulnerable people to store guns,” he said. “It’s making our job more difficult to trace where they came from. But the community can help us by telling us if they hear of this happening.
“And if you’re involved in the supply of drugs or avail yourself of guns we will target you.”
‘WINNING THE WAR ON GUNS AND NARCOTICS’
A Police operation to target gun and organised drug crime in Leeds enjoyed its most successful year in 2013.
The specialist Operation Quartz team – which will have been in action for five years in April – secured 35 convictions last year, with offenders given combined prison sentences of more than 150 years.
Detective Superintendent Pat Twiggs, said: “I think it’s fair to say we’re winning and Leeds feels a much safer place now than it did five years ago. But for that success to continue we have to have the support of the public.”
Set up in 2009 partially in response to a government pledge to tackle gun crime, Quartz initially focused on the Chapeltown area, where there had historically been problems, before being rolled out across the city.
Consisting of 12 plain-clothes officers led by a detective inspector – and working in conjunction with covert units, armed officers and neighbourhood police – it employs a range of tactics.
Known offenders who are not in prison are subjected to regular visits at home. Those suspected of being involved in firearms crime are warned that they are being watched.
Covert tactics include surveillance by under-cover officers and the use of spy cameras.
Detectives admit they are unable to eradicate gun crime entirely. High-profile incidents like the shooting of PC Suzanne Hudson in Headingley last month serve as an illustration of the difficulties they face.
Mr Twiggs said: “What has happened to our colleague recently brings home the fact that it’s very difficult to know who’s holding weapons. Quartz is doing its level best with the intelligence available but to understand the full extent of the problem is very difficult.”
Detective Inspector Jaz Khan added: “We do our best, but we’re not going to catch every single person. We rely on the public to be our eyes and ears.”
Shane Fenton, who runs the Speak to the Streets charity aimed at preventing young people being caught up in gangs, said criminals were becoming more reluctant to use guns.
“People realise the dangers of having guns, the reality of being caught with them,” he said. “As long as there’s money in drugs, some people will have guns, but the young people I deal with know it’s not worth it.”
FIGURES RACK UP NEARLY FIVE YEARS ON
Operation Quartz will be five years old in April. These are some of its key numbers since its formation in 2009:
140 people have been convicted of a range of crimes, including possessing firearms and ammunition, importing firearms and possessing drugs with intent to supply.
Total prison sentences of 546 years have been handed down.
Officers have executed 789 search warrants under drugs and firearms laws.
967 people have been arrested as a result of warrants
109 firearms have been seized, including handguns, Tasers, sawn-off shotguns and sub-machine guns.
£4.8million of drugs have been seized.
£1.1million in laundered cash has been seized.
Courts have ordered the confiscation of £1.5million in criminal assets, including homes and cars.
While the number of firearms seized in Leeds rose to 27 last year, from 7 the previous year, the number of incidents in which a gun was fired fell, from 54 to 39 .