County lines: 1,100 people arrested in UK crackdown

By Alex Therrien
BBC News

media captionMother of 13-year-old boy caught up with county lines, speaks anonymously to the BBC

A crackdown on county lines drug dealing gangs resulted in the arrest of 1,100 people and the seizure of 292 weapons.

Forces across the UK boosted activity against county lines gangs in the week from 17 to 23 May.

In this week there were 33 guns and 219 knives among the weapons seized and 80 drug dealing phone lines identified.

County line gangs are urban drug dealers who sell to customers in more rural areas via dedicated phone lines.

There are currently thought to be around 600 of these gangs operating in the UK, down from around 2,000 two years ago.

They are notorious for exploiting children to work as couriers and forcing vulnerable people to let them use their homes to conceal or deal drugs, as portrayed in BBC drama Line of Duty.

During the week of action, 904 of these "cuckooed" homes were visited by law enforcement, and 1,138 vulnerable people were safeguarded, including 573 children.

Boy's welts and bruises sent 'chill down my spine'

Two boys were stopped by police in Northampton this month. When searched, officers found one had a weapon and 80 "rocks" of crack cocaine.

They were just 16 and 17, from Birmingham and in town as part of a county line selling to the area's drug users.

One boy stood out. He had ligature marks on his neck and bruises in the shape of a hand on his throat. His back was covered in welts as if he had been beaten.

An officer with more than 20 years' service told me it sent a "chill down my spine".

He thought the teenager had been tortured by fellow gang members, possibly to force him to sell drugs.

During the pandemic, the criminal exploitation of children in so-called county lines did not go away. In fact, some charities say after lockdown things have actually got worse.

Children already disconnected from school and social services dropped further off the radar. Criminal gangs were ready and waiting.

Lisa, a youth worker in the South West, told me it felt like it was "out of control". She described she and her team as being "on their knees".

And in another part of the country I met a mother whose son was groomed by a gang at the age of 12.

During lockdown she says he would jump out of his bedroom window and run away.

Because he wasn't in school she says he became "a law unto himself" and went "completely undetected by anyone".

"We're frightened for him, but we're also frightened for ourselves," she said.

'Abhorrent crime'

National Police Chiefs' Council lead for county lines, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Graham McNulty, said: "The police response to county lines has increased substantially over the past 18 months, we have been relentless in pursuing those behind the line whilst doing everything possible to rescue those being exploited.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCounty line gangs are urban drug dealers who sell to customers in more rural areas via dedicated phone lines

"Intensification weeks like this allow us to dedicate a burst of activity and resources nationally, highlighting to the public our absolute determination to rid communities of this abhorrent crime.

"We will use all the powers available to us to tackle every element of the county line network because we know the effect violence and crimes associated with county lines can have in our communities."

Mr McNulty added that signs of a child being exploited included unexplained cash, new expensive phones or clothing and suddenly going missing.

Having train tickets, taxi receipts, a change in behaviour and new people suddenly appearing at a house or flat were also signs to look out for.

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