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Coronavirus (COVID-19): the policing response and what you need to know

Stop Adult Abuse Week – Cuckooing during COVID-19

Starving, stinking, scared - the reality for young people exploited by county lines gangs
Trap house in Gloucestershire. Pic credit: Gloucestershire Police

County lines drug dealers are taking advantage of the global pandemic to target vulnerable adults in our communities. It’s happening right now in areas such as Yeovil, Weston-Super-Mare and Taunton – destinations that are popularly known for being rural towns. We need your help to stop them. Today is the fourth day of Stop Adult Abuse Week, dedicated towards highlighting the harm caused by ‘cuckooing’ – a term associated with county lines drug dealing.

Detective Chief Inspector Kerry Paterson, force lead for county lines said:

“Even during these difficult times, county lines continues to be a local and national problem. Drug dealers from big cities such as London, Birmingham, and Manchester have been expertly using the pandemic as a gateway into the homes of vulnerable adults under the pretence of offering care and support. It is a sad fact that many of these people have gone on to being abused and having their homes taken over by drug dealers to use as a base to sell class A drugs. This is something known as ‘cuckooing’.

“Victims often find themselves imprisoned in their own homes, cutting and selling drugs 24/7, in disgusting conditions, unable to wash, sleep or eat properly, under the constant threat of violence, with dangerous people coming and going. They are often given drugs in exchange for working and will lose all ties with friends and family.

“The current situation with the ‘lockdown’ has made it even more difficult for vulnerable adults to escape their prisons and access the help they need to get away from drug dealers. The help of local communities is more important than ever in helping us dismantle county lines. Help us to identify vulnerable individuals, keep them safe, and ensure they get the support they need.

“’Cuckooing’ poses a significant threat to our communities and we are committed to reducing its impact. But we need your help: spot the signs and act on your concerns. Your voice will be heard and it will make a difference.

“If you see unusual activity taking place at an address in your community, for example a stream of people visiting or people you don’t recognise (from out of town) at a neighbour’s or friend’s address please report it to the police on 101.  If you feel that person is in immediate danger please ring the police on 999.”

South Somerset Neighbourhoods and Partnership Inspector; Elaine Costanza said:

“Despite the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic our neighbourhood policing teams in Yeovil, Chard and the surrounding villages have continued their fight against county lines drug dealing.

“During a week of activity in April, my neighbourhood teams worked together with officers from Operation Remedy to visit over 34 addresses of vulnerable adults in Yeovil. These adults are common targets ‘cuckooing’ and our visits are instrumental in protecting our most vulnerable, whilst also disrupting county line drug lines and preventing dealers from gaining foothold in our communities.

“‘Cuckooing’ is a form of criminal exploitation, which has developed in our force area and which can have devastating financial and emotional consequences to already struggling victims.

“Our neighbourhood teams continue regular engagement with these vulnerable residents and are constantly looking for signs of more victims groomed by drug gangs.

“I would like to thank residents of local communities who have shared information with us in relation to suspected drug-related activity in the area. Their assistance has been key in helping us to identify vulnerable adults, ensuring they are protected, and aiding us to tackle county lines drug dealing”.

Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens comments:

“My first policing priority is to protect the most vulnerable from harm. Unfortunately, county lines drug dealing exploits some of the most vulnerable in our communities, through cuckooing, grooming and manipulation.

“I know many local people have suffered hardship due to Covid19, including financial difficulty, bereavement, loneliness and poor mental health. Unfortunately, these hardships affect some more than others and has resulted in more people becoming vulnerable and more susceptible to county lines drug dealing.

“Sadly, cuckooing continues to affect the most vulnerable in our communities and my team work with our commissioned support services to ensure the best outcome for victims. Victims of Crime Advocacy Service (VOCAS) provide support to adult victims of crime with an enhanced need such as mental health, learning difficulties or physical disabilities. VOCAS provide advocacy alongside practical and emotional support, their service empowers and enables individuals to cope and recover from their experiences as a victim.

“My team, and Avon and Somerset Police, have taken a partnership-led approach to county lines to apprehend drug dealings and ensure local people are kept safe. In working with local councils, housing associations, victim services and many others, we are doing everything we can to disrupt this devastating crime.

“Although many county lines circles are being disrupted, drugs gangs continue to make promises to vulnerable people about money, status and safety that working for them will provide. We must ensure that we all recognise the signs of drug activity and the exploitation of vulnerable people to stop this awful crime destroying more people’s lives.

“There is still plenty of work to be done but I am pleased with the positive direction that we are making. We will continue to send a clear message to criminals that coming into our towns and cities to take advantage of vulnerable people and commit their crimes is not an option.”

What does county lines mean?
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.

What are we doing to tackle county lines?
The police work closely with partner agencies in housing, drug and alcohol support services and local authorities to identify and support those at risk, identify the perpetrators, disrupt the enterprises and bring offenders to justice.  The South West Regional Organised Crime Unit (SW ROCU) monitors and targets county lines that cross regional borders, linking in with the National Crime Agency to ensure a UK-wide response.

What can you do to help?
We need you to help us tackle county lines criminality by spotting the signs and reporting drug dealing or exploitation of a vulnerable person. Many people would not recognise the signs that a vulnerable person is being groomed or exploited. By raising awareness, we hope more people will feel comfortable in reporting information to the police. Your call could save lives.

Cuckooing
Drug dealers will often take over the homes of vulnerable people who may also be addicted to drugs, and use it as a base to deal drugs in the area. The vulnerable person may be being kept inside against their will.
• Have you noticed more people calling or staying at an address? Sometimes at unsociable hours?
• Have you noticed a neighbour has not been seen for a while?
• Are there suspicious smells coming from an address?
• Are there suspicious or unfamiliar vehicles outside the address?
• Are there new or regularly changing residents (e.g. different accent compared to local accent)?

Cuckooing could be taking place. Look out for your neighbours and report suspicions anonymously online to Crimestoppers or by calling 0800 555 111. Alternatively you can call the police on 101. If you think someone is at immediate risk of harm, always call 999.

Stop Adult Abuse Week is a local initiative that started in 2014 when five Safeguarding Adult Boards in the South West decided to join together to run a week raising awareness about safeguarding people from abuse and neglect. Stop Adult Abuse Week runs from Monday 15 June until Friday 19 June 2020. Each day is dedicated to raising awareness of different types of abuse including; domestic abuse, cuckooing, and fraud.