County lines drug networks now a nation-wide issue

17 November 2016

A second report on the drug distribution model known as county lines has found that over 70% of police forces in England and Wales are now reporting established activity within their area.

County lines typically involves an urban criminal gang travelling to smaller locations to sell heroin and crack cocaine. The group will use a single telephone number for customers ordering drugs, operated from outside the area, which becomes their ‘brand’. Unlike other criminal activities where telephone numbers are changed on a regular basis, these telephone numbers have value so are maintained and protected.

The gangs tend to use a local property, generally belonging to a vulnerable person, as a base for their activities. This is often taken over by force or coercion, and in some instances victims have left their homes in fear of violence.

They employ various tactics to evade detection, including rotating gang members between locations so they are not identified by law enforcement or competitors, and using women and children to transport drugs in the belief that they are less likely to be stopped and searched.

The last county lines report was published in 2015, based on 2014 data. Since then, new trends include:

  • The emergence of a 24/7 market. In 2014 activity was almost exclusively day time
  • Gang members establishing roots in areas that have had county lines activity over a long period and creating spin off markets around those established bases
  • The use of Tasers and acid as weapons for enforcing local dominance
  • The targeting of adults with mental health issues

71% of returns reported established county lines activity within a force area, with a further 12% reporting an emerging picture over the previous six months. 80% of police forces reported the exploitation of children, typically to deliver the drugs to customers, using a combination of intimidation, violence, debt bondage, and grooming to control them. Adult drug users, often addicts, and vulnerable females are also exploited.

Other 2016 findings include the dominance of London gangs, which were reported in 85% of areas. 35% of areas highlighted the presence of Somali gangs from London.

A positive aspect of the reports from forces is that 90% are actively working with local partners to safeguard vulnerable adults and children. The most successful safeguarding outcomes have involved multiple agencies, including police, housing authorities, town councils, public health bodies, charities and the media.

Tony Saggers, the NCA’s Head of Drugs Threat and Intelligence, and co-author of the report, said:

“The key priority for the NCA around county lines is raising awareness of the threat to young and vulnerable people. Since the report in 2015, police and other partners are more informed about what a county lines market looks like. This has led to increased recognition and reporting, and to safeguarding partners being better equipped to collaborate. This 2016 report provides greater insight again, and will be an important part of improving our collective response.

“Given the levels of exploitation of young and vulnerable people that are taking place we think there could be real value in finding ways to use the Modern Slavery Act in tackling county lines. Whilst a drugs conviction is often seen as a badge of honour within these criminal gangs, anecdotal evidence tells us that they attach stigma to a modern slavery conviction. We need to make that work for us.”

The full report is availble pdf here (146 KB)

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