Are claims on the scale of police media investigations correct?

14 February 2012

"You have 171 officers who are involved in three separate investigations and this is the biggest single police operation in the history of British policing."

Trevor Kavanagh, BBC 5 Live, 13 February 2012

Trevor Kavanagh claimed on BBC 5 Live yesterday that the three investigations into the press — Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta — amounted to the largest police operation "in the history of British policing" with 171 officers involved, in support of his point that "this police operation is wildly disproportionate with what might be the potential offences that may or may not have been committed."

The Metropolitan Police have since released a press statement saying that there are a total of 169 officers and staff involved in the operations, but have not said whether this is more than in any other police operation.


It should be noted that whilst Mr Kavanagh referred to the involvement of 171 officers, the Met gave a figure of 169 "officers and staff", suggesting that the actual number of officers involved is lower.

Full Fact contacted the Met, who pointed out that the summer riots involved up to 16,000 police officers. Similarly, former Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson has referred to events such as the G20 protests, Royal Wedding, TUC march and Notting Hill Carnival, each requiring 5,000 police officers.

However, each of these operations are instances of public order policing, and may not necessarily be comparable with the numbers used for other operations.

A more apt comparison might be the announcement by Greater Manchester Police that "hundreds" of officers were involved in drugs raids in December as part of Operation Audacious. When we asked for details, however, the force explained that their policy was not to comment on the exact number of officers involved in particular operations.

Mr Kavanagh argued that the number of officers assigned to the operations was "wildly disproportionate", claiming that "It is bigger than the operation on the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, [and] it's far, far bigger, totally dwarfs the operation on Milly Dowler". Full Fact were unable to confirm the number of police officers assigned to these cases.

However, we were able to investigate the number of officers associated with Operation Sumac - the investigation into the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich - conducted between 2006 and 2008. According to the BBC, the operation involved 300 officers and staff from Suffolk police force, and 300 officers and staff from other forces, a much higher number than those involved in the three media investigations. Full Fact have contacted Suffolk police, who confirmed that these figures are correct.

In order to find out whether these figures were typical of police operations, Full Fact contacted HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Police Foundation think tank, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and the Police Federation, all of whom were unable to confirm whether the figures were representative. (In a follow up article, we asked the same question of a former Commissioner of the Met Police, with more luck).


Assuming that Mr Kavanagh was intending to refer to the number of police officers and staff rather than just police officers (as is suggested by the Met's press release), then it is inaccurate to say that this is the largest operation in the history of the British police.

Public order operations are often (and perhaps inevitably) considerably larger in terms of the number of police officers involved, although this may not be a reasonable comparison with investigations such as Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta.

However, there were also considerably more police officers and staff involved in Operation Sumac — the investigation into the murders of prostitutes in Ipswich.

These raw numbers cannot tell us whether or not the manpower assigned to the press investigations is disproportionate — which is anyway ultimately an operational decision for the police. However, the evidence offered by Mr Kavanagh to support his view does seem to be in places wrong, and in places partial.

The Met's view in their statement was that: "Given the seriousness of the allegations currently under investigation and the significant number of victims, the MPS does not believe that the level of resources devoted to the three inquiries is in any way disproportionate to the enormous task in hand."

Mr Kavanagh, though, is at odds with the force on the seriousness of the offfences, as he said yesterday "nobody's died, nobody's committed any hideous offences that I'm aware of or even been suggested as having committed such offences."

Update (22/02/2012): Following Mr Kavanagh's claims on the Lockerbie bombing, Full Fact made a Freedom of Information request to establish the extent of the subsequent police investigation.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have revealed the following:

From the information held we can confirm that on 22 December 1988, the day following the disaster, 1029 police officers were on duty at Lockerbie and an average of 1043 police personnel were involved on a daily basis during the first week of the operation together with approximately 1000 military personnel and personnel from other rescue/emergency services.

By week four, following the initial search and recovery phase the number of Police personnel involved was 109. Staffing remained fairly static with gradual but continual adjustments being made to reflect the requirements of the enquiry. By week 47 the number of Police personnel involved was 68.

It is arguable that the initial search and recovery phase should be separated from the investigation, and so is not directly comparable. Mr Kavanagh appears to have been specifically referring to investigations, although the high number of officers involved highlights the dangers of using broad terms such as "operation".

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