We took part in a national, co-ordinated week of action last week to tackle county lines drug dealing and the associated exploitation of vulnerable people.
Led by the National County Lines Co-Ordination Centre (NCLCC), we partnered with local authorities, key service providers and other police forces to ensure there was a joined up approach to sharing information and resources to dismantle county lines networks which cross police force borders.
‘County lines’ is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs out of bigger cities into one or more smaller towns in the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money, and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence and weapons.
Last week’s operation saw the results of a long term collaborative investigation with the Metropolitan Police into a county line believed to be active in Taunton. The operation saw warrants being executed in Wembley, London and in Taunton last Thursday, October 10, 2019. During this operation, six people were arrested from addresses in London and Taunton, five of whom have now been charged with conspiracy to supply class A drugs and human trafficking offences. The men who were charged were remanded in custody for court the following day and have since been bailed.
During the week, our officers visited over 100 properties in partnership with housing providers and support workers which were thought to have either previously been cuckooed or were believed to be at risk of being cuckooed in the future.
‘Cuckooing’ is the term used for when drug dealers use violence, exploitation and intimidation to take over the home of a vulnerable person in order to use it as a base for drug dealing.
During the visits officers spoke to 69 adults considered vulnerable and potentially at risk of being exploited by dealers and signposted them to appropriate support.
Officers arrested 26 people for a range of offences including drugs supply, possession of weapons and theft. They seized weapons including a machete, a hammer and a knife, a large amount of suspected class A drugs and just under £25,000 in cash, as well as two vehicles and 13 mobile phones.
We also used the week to engage with young people and local communities, to educate and raise awareness of the issues surrounding county lines.
Officers visited seven schools across the force area and a pupil referral unit in Bridgwater during the week, engaging with over 2000 pupils, as well as giving a talk to a neighbourhood Watch Scheme in Wells and to staff at the YMCA in Glastonbury. These talks centred on the grooming and exploitation of young people and aim to help local communities and concerned professionals to understand how to spot the signs that a young person may be being groomed.
Another part of last week’s operation was the sending out of hundreds of text messages to suspected drug users and deal lines believed to be operating in the force area. The messages directed 250 drug users to support agencies while also making dealers aware that we knew what they were using the phone number for.
In response, we received a number of calls requesting help or providing us with information – including one call from the family of a potential drugs runner from London believed to be being used to sell drugs from London.
Detective Chief Inspector Kerry Paterson, force lead for county lines said: “Last week’s operation shows how much can be achieved when different police forces work in partnership across borders as well as alongside local authorities, schools, communities and other professionals who have an interest in keeping vulnerable people safe.
“Our intelligence gathering and operational tactics are improving all the time and the national co-ordination really helps us to focus our resources where they are most needed and can do the most good.
“These drugs gangs are ruthless and don’t care who they exploit or hurt. They make false promises to vulnerable people about the money, status and safety that working for them will provide. Increasingly, the young people we come into contact with through our operations are treated as victims and where possible we utilise modern slavery legislation as well as drugs laws to prosecute those at the top of the chains.”
Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens said: “We need to be doing everything we can to disrupt county lines and stop those who want to exploit the most vulnerable for their own benefit. We need to ensure that everyone recognises the signs of drug activity and exploitation of vulnerable people and work together to stop this crime destroying people’s lives.”