The National Crime Agency (NCA) has published its fourth annual assessment into county lines drug supply, vulnerability and harm. The report highlights how violence and control used by drug dealing networks is continuing, while the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults is increasing.
The number of lines has increased from 720 (as acknowledged in the 2017-2018 assessment) to around 2,000. Children aged between 15 and 17 make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved in county lines, with girls and boys being groomed and exploited. The grooming techniques seen as part of county lines are similar to what has been seen in child sexual exploitation and abuse. Often, the young people don’t see themselves as victims. Instead, they’re flattered by the attention and gifts they receive, so are less likely to speak to law enforcement.
Exploitation methods continue to involve sexual abuse and exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking, as well as the threat of violence and injury to ensure compliance. This makes the whole system approach to tackling county lines more important than ever before.
The impact of county lines covers all police force areas and organised crime threats. That being so, law enforcement, Government, charities and other organisations need to continue to work together to disrupt the criminal activity and safeguard the vulnerable.
National County Lines Co-ordination Centre
The National County Lines Co-ordination Centre, which is jointly led by the NCA and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), is responsible for mapping out the threat from county lines nationally and prioritising action against the most significant perpetrators. It provides support to front line officers and is working to deepen the partnerships with non-law enforcement organisations in order to enhance the wider national response.
Since its launch in September 2018, the intelligence picture around county lines has increased, as has law enforcement’s understanding of the threat.
Nikki Holland, director of investigations at the NCA and County Lines lead, said: “Tackling county lines is a national law enforcement priority. We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity. Every organised crime group trafficking drugs is a business which relies on cash flow. County lines is no different. What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets.”
Holland added: “We also need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement. This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone. The need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.”
Law enforcement activity
The assessment publication follows a week of co-ordinated law enforcement activity across the UK which resulted in over 600 arrests. Led by police forces and Regional Organised Crime Units, the activity included the execution of warrants at addresses, visits to vulnerable individuals and officer engagement with private hire companies as well as those who are being exploited by county lines networks.
Between 21 and 27 January, over 400 vulnerable adults and 600 children were engaged for safeguarding purposes. There were 40 referrals to the National Referral Mechanism, which assesses individuals as potential victims of human trafficking/modern slavery. Upwards of 140 weapons were seized including 12 firearms, swords, machetes, axes and knives. Officers also seized cash totalling more than £200,000. Significant amounts of drugs were recovered, including heroin and cocaine.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, the NPCC’s lead for county lines, said: “This latest targeted work on county lines gangs shows how police forces across the UK are working together to dismantle these networks and protect the young and vulnerable people who are exploited by them. The work of the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre has resulted in more arrests and large amounts of drugs and weapons being taken off our streets. This underlines the importance of our work with key partners like public health, the Department for Education, social care and the charity sector. Tackling county lines and its consequences is a national priority for us and we’ll continue to do all we can to pursue and prosecute those who commit violence and exploit the vulnerable.”
Victoria Atkins (Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability) stated: “We know that, by targeting the root causes of violent crime and intervening early, we can help prevent young people being led down a dangerous path. This forms a crucial part of our Serious Violence Strategy. County lines gangs are grooming and exploiting young people across the country and it’s vital that we continue to work together to arrest the perpetrators. We’re supporting the police and others by funding the new National County Lines Co-ordination Centre, which launched in September. I’m pleased that this multi-agency approach is already seeing results and is helping police forces work together to tackle a crime that transcends regional boundaries.”