By: Pete Beard
In the summer of 2016, I found myself in the middle of the New Forest outside a shuttered and disused police station. I was there with Dave Nath, who I run Story Films with. We set up Story in the same year and, whilst recently we’ve started making true crime dramas, for years we have worked together on documentaries set in worlds that are difficult to access.
The reason we were in New Forest that day was for a discreet meeting with the two senior police officers responsible for “covert policing” for the south west of England. Together they ran the SW Regional Organised Crime Unit. Dave and I were there to ask the impossible: would they allow us access into their secret world with a camera for Channel 4? It had never previously been allowed but they were open to the idea. Sometime later we were invited to another “undisclosed location”, this time we were told to bring an overnight bag, but not where we’d be going.
We were picked up by a surveillance team, an impressive group of covert officers – experts in tailing suspects 24/7 without them ever knowing. Our task: to work out if it would be possible to film a “live surveillance operation” without blowing their cover.
Within minutes of meeting the team we were flying round the streets of a seaside town, in ordinary looking cars with high performance engines concealed under the bonnet. It was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. I was constantly worried we’d get spotted by the drug trafficker we were surveilling. The operation would be “compromised” and we’d be thrown out. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Instead we were invited back, this time with cameras.
After spending years making deeply emotional films about radicalisation (My Son the Jihadi) and mental health (Kids on the Edge), I was keen to make something completely different. Following this team I could make a documentary that felt more like an action film, but I had no idea then what I was getting into – that I’d be spending the next four years of my life with these secret police, following an operation into one of the most challenging crimes to prosecute: human trafficking.
The access we’d spent months negotiating was unprecedented. The Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU), a covert team targeting high level organised crime groups (OCG), had opened the door to their secret tactics and sensitive police methods.
It was imperative I didn’t show the bad guys how it all works whilst also showing the complicated nature of how human trafficking works. The case we were filming involved women being brought into the country and sexually exploited. It’s not like you see in the movies; the women weren’t chained to radiators. The control exerted by the trafficker was often subtle. However, when we got to speak to these women their experiences were no less horrendous. It felt critical to show this to an audience, whilst keeping the survivors safe.
We also had to deal with the erratic and unpredictable nature of the criminals themselves. We never knew when they’d be “on the move” and the surveillance team would have to scramble. Whenever this happened, I’d have to drop everything and kick into action. Often I’d be picked up at a motorway service station by the surveillance team as they sped across country. On one occasion, I was at my son’s second birthday party at Whipsnade Zoo when a message came from the Sergeant. The head of the OCG was on the move to a “dirty meet”, a cash exchange.
My girlfriend saw my expression and told me to go but not before getting a few photos of me, my son and the tigers (his favourite animal at the time). I then dumped the kids’ car seats with their grandfather and hit the road for an 18-hour filming trip. This kind of thing became a common occurrence.
In the four years it took to make the series so many things have changed; my father died, my children went from babies to school kids, we left Europe and COVID left its imprint across the world. The series took me from Bristol to the red-light districts of Brazil, from brothels in Chelsea to the street workers of Madrid, but in the end the police brought down the OCG. The hundreds of hours I spent tucked in the back of a surveillance vehicle was worth it and the incredible story of the women who survived his criminal network is a legacy to those hours.
Taken: Hunting the Sex Traffickers starts on Channel 4 on Monday, 19th July at 9pm. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or visit our dedicated Documentaries hub.
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