Hampshire Police say they have safeguarded 17 children and disrupted ten so-called “county lines” drug dealing networks during a week of intensified action.
Police say a major focus of the operation was identifying the children and giving them support to break away from gangs that have groomed them.
Police also seized:
- £4,140 worth of heroin
- £50k worth of cannabis
- 25 MDMA tabs
- £7,380 cash recovered
- 10 weapons were recovered: 7 knives, 1 scissor blade, 1 catapult, 1 knuckleduster
- 38 mobile phones
- Crack and cocaine was also recovered (not yet quantified)
They also arrested 26 men over the age of 18, three boys and four adult women. British Transport Police ran a number of successful operations in Southampton, Portsmouth, Basingstoke and the New Forest to protect children and vulnerable adults who are often exploited by gangs into selling or moving drugs.
“County lines” is a term used to describe organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs out of bigger cities into smaller towns in the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store drugs and money, and often use coercion, intimidation, violence and weapons.
As part of the week of action, Hampshire neighbourhood policing teams engaged with local residents in order to share information about county lines drug dealing in the area and raise awareness of child criminal exploitation and how to spot it.
Hampshire Constabulary’s Detective Superintendent Nick Plummer said: “No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part and support County Lines activity.
“Children without criminal records – known as ‘clean skins’ – are preferred because they are less likely to be known to police. However, children with criminal records are also vulnerable to exploitation from gangs who use them to operate their business all over the country.
“We are often involved in missing person reports of young people who have left their place of residence in another county and later been found in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, often carrying drugs or cash which results in us having to arrest the young person.
“However this is also an opportunity for us get them the support they need and refer them to appropriate services. We are continually assessing the threat, risk and impact on the young person in these challenging situations.
“We have to consider the ongoing risk to them from the gang who controls them, as well as rival gangs, but this is an opportunity for us to put in place safeguarding measures and support that ensures they are safe from harm.”
Last week’s operation saw officers target 52 “cuckooed” addresses and stop checked seven vehicles for organised crime usage. “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.
A vulnerable person might be someone with a dependency on drugs or is suffering from mental ill-health or substance misuse.
Officers spoke to 38 adults considered vulnerable and potentially at risk of being exploited by dealers and signposted them to appropriate support agencies who can help them, therefore cutting off the dealers from a base to deal.
Police say a significant amount of intelligence was been gathered through the week of action helping to inform future assessment of threat, risk and harm in communities from organised crime networks.
Detective Superintendent Nick Plummer added: “The objective of this intensification week was to disrupt county lines networks and safeguarding exploited children and the vulnerable.
“County Lines and local drug networks cause misery for vulnerable young people and our communities and it is absolutely right that we continue putting significant effort into identifying those involved in supply and exploitation for their own gain.
“There is this strong link between drugs and violence, and we have made significant efforts to understand the impact of those involved in County Lines and other crime that spills into our neighbourhoods.
“Key signs of exploitation include children travelling alone, particularly during school hours, late at night or on a regular basis. They may also look lost or in unfamiliar surroundings and may be carrying large amounts of money.
“Criminals groom children through manipulation, with drugs and alcohol or promises of wealth and status. Any child, in any community, can be vulnerable but they may be too scared to raise concerns and many do not see themselves as victims because they have been manipulated.
“They may not look or act like we expect a victim should and may for instance be angry and aggressive as these are common responses to trauma. We must therefore look beyond the obvious to see they need help.
“This is not an issue we can tackle alone. Local agencies, charities, partners, schools, parents all need to help us protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”
If you notice suspicious activity or have information about drug dealing you can make a report on Hampshire Police’s website, call 101 or call 999 in an emergency.
Photo: Cambridgeshire Police