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County Lines - Urban drug gangs target coastal communities

12 Aug 2015

A new report has found that over 180 urban drug-dealing gangs have expanded their activity into rural and coastal towns, pushing out local dealers or targeting the ‘space’ left by law enforcement action.

The National Crime Agency and National Police Chiefs Council warned today that the groups are recruiting and exploiting local vulnerable adults and children to help them. They said front line awareness needs to increase so these individuals can be better protected.

The NCA’s ‘County Lines’ report shows that around half the places affected are coastal towns with high levels of unemployment, mental health issues or crime. The majority of the rest are more affluent areas with good transport links to major cities.

The urban gangs, which deal mainly in heroin and crack cocaine, are believed to be attracted by the combination of the potential customer base and low resistance from local dealers in the face of greater capability and intent.

The model known as county lines refers to the use of a single telephone number for ordering drugs, operated from outside the area, which becomes the group’s brand. Unlike other criminal activities where telephone numbers are changed on a regular basis, these telephone numbers are maintained and protected.

The gangs begin by taking over premises in the target town, sometimes by coercion, by using property belonging to local addicts who are paid in drugs, or by beginning a relationship with a vulnerable female.

They use common marketing tactics to get established, including introductory offers.

They will then expand the workforce, recruiting local runners to deliver drugs and money. The groups often use children, because they work for little pay, are easy to control, and are less likely to be detected. The report found that most runners are boys aged between 14 and 17 and that grooming with gifts and money to control them via a ‘debt’ was common. Where girls were used they sometimes also became the victims of sexual violence.

Ian Cruxton, National Crime Agency Director of Organised Crime said: 

“County lines is one way for high level members of criminal groups to try to distance themselves from law enforcement attention. The NCA and police forces are determined not to let them do that.

“This particular criminal approach puts vulnerable adults and children at risk. They are in an unsafe environment, and exposed to violence and fear. Our assessment aims to help those working with vulnerable individuals to be alert to the risks. I ask all parents, teachers and other professionals who work in this sector to be vigilant. We know that gangs target local children who are unknown to social services and in their eyes are less likely to attract police attention.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead on Gangs, Deputy Chief Constable Dave Thompson said:

“In response to the growing threat posed by county lines operations, the NCA has sought to quantify the extent of the problem and bring together law enforcement partners and the wider public services, and I am pleased to aid in that as the NPCC lead for gangs. Operation Engaged has been launched as the national response to issue of ‘county lines’, and an investigators toolkit has been developed to strengthen intelligence flows and highlight innovative disruption plans. With forces working in close collaboration with the NCA, we can make a difference in tackling this insidious spreading of serious crime.”

The County Lines report was commissioned after the Ending Gang and Youth Violence team within the Home Office identified a growing body of intelligence, emerging in particular from London and the South East, that vulnerable young people are being exploited to facilitate the running of street level drug dealing using the county lines model.

Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation Karen Bradley said:

“The Government is taking action against gang and youth violence by targeting support in the areas that need it most to reduce offending and protect vulnerable young people.

“We are already working with 43 local areas facing problems with gangs and youth violence. This work includes supporting a network of over 80 experts with frontline experience of dealing with gangs and drug dealing linked to organised crime and funding to support women and girls who suffer harm, including sexual violence, at the hands of gang members. We also recently updated the statutory definition of a gang to reflect changes in the way that gangs operate

“County lines is an emerging national issue, which involves the exploitation of vulnerable young people and adults by violent gang members in order to move and sell drugs across the country.

“This trend has been recognised by the Home Office, National Crime Agency and National Policing lead, who are improving the operational response to safeguard the vulnerable and target the most violent by ensuring that the more hidden elements of gang crime and exploitation are visible to the police and local partners.”