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Two senior detectives have highlighted the need for continued community support in the force’s fight against County Lines drugs activity.
Head of Major Crimes, Detective Chief Inspector Rob Taylor and Detective Inspector Lucy Maskew from the force’s Child Protection and Exploitation Team have shared an insight into the force’s dealings with the illegal drugs trade in the latest episode of The Beat Podcast.
Rob said; “For anyone who doesn’t know, County Lines is the selling of illegal drugs by organised crime groups. These crime groups often come from the bigger areas of the country such as London, the West Midlands or Manchester, and use a deal line by approaching and infiltrating children from smaller cities and smaller towns to sell drugs on their behalf – ultimately expanding their market.
“Often it’s impossible to realise if there’s a county line operating within our force area until we get to the point where elements of street level criminality are on the rise – whether that be an increase in anti-social behaviour, an increase in personal robbery or elements of violence that is often blamed on street gangs. It’s only then, when we delve a little deeper, that we realise there’s potentially a county line operating in our area.
“These groups can be large and well run and often start within a specific geographical area. As their success increases, their reach expands as it becomes a tried and trusted formula – especially for those in the metropolitan cities who have been doing it for a long time.
“I think it’s fair to say that the first time we have contact with some of those involved in county lines is only after they’ve committed a criminal offence. The individual in question would be dealt with for those specific offences but we always make sure we ask them why they’re doing it.
“Asking this allows us to understand the background of what’s going on and work out who is putting pressure on them to carry out this type of crime. It gives ourselves and our partners the opportunity to work out who the influencers and main criminals are within these organised groups.
“This early intervention is vital because ultimately, if we don’t target those at the top of the chain, then those at the bottom will continue to be replaced and it will remain a constant cycle of criminality.
“This way of work is important to protecting our county’s children because those at the top of the county lines tree often rely on a child’s vulnerability and silence when it comes to carrying out the work. It’s because of this that we choose to adopt an incredibly robust approach when reprimanding those involved because if we don’t, our children will continue to be at risk.”
Lucy said; “I think what’s important to realise is that, although typically aged between 14 and 17, children as young as 10 can be targeted by these gangs. It isn’t specific to one gender and often these kids are extremely vulnerable. They don’t often have strong family connections and this makes them easy targets for these organisations because these individuals are often just looking for somewhere to belong.
“Typically, they’ve been in care or they’ve been missing and it’s during these times that they’ll be picked up. They’ll possibly also have been in a violent family setting at one time or another and these groups focus on these vulnerabilities when picking who to exploit.
“However, that isn’t a universal template and any child can be at risk but generally, if people have had a negative childhood experience that has made them more vulnerable then they’ll be targeted.
“If you’re unsure what to look out for then there can be a number of red flags. For instance, does a child have money they won’t account for? Or new shoes, phones or clothing? If a child is turning up with these goods and there’s no explanation as to where they’ve got them from and they don’t have a job, parents, schools etc need to be exploring what’s going on.
“Also, it’s important to keep an eye out for any unexplained missing episodes. Kids will go quiet for a couple of hours and you won’t know where they are and it’s during this time that these organised groups get a firmer grip on their day to day life.
“And as the leaders get a stronger grip on them, the children become more secretive. They get messages from people that their parents or carers don’t know about and there can also be a decline in their physical or emotional behaviour. Sometimes these kids are emotionally unable to deal with the situation they find themselves trapped in so they lash out and become more aggressive because they’re not sure how to get out. Their school work can decline and their attendance can take a hit.
“I think schools definitely need to be talking with their students as they get to know them really well. They need to continue to have those conversations and find out what’s going on in the life and, if you’re a student, talk to those friends who you see might be struggling and then confide in a trusted adult.
“We actually have a range of officers who are trained to support exploited children but it’s important to highlight that it’s not just the police who can help. We work alongside partners such as Catch 22 and those in social care to ensure we build up a good relationship with these children as they don’t always want to tell us what’s been going on in their life.
“Partnership work is critical because as an organisation we hold intelligence and information on people but what they need to be aware of is these other partners also hold vital information that allows us to target and divert these kids away from these groups. The likes of education and social services can share information about targeted areas and where these kids are being targeted from. We can then come together and come up with a collective plan for the best way to divert and protect the children.
Rob agreed, adding; “A lot of the things Lucy has mentioned is really important when it comes to intelligence gathering. I think it expands further than schools as well as I think whole communities have a responsibility to look out for our children.
“For instance, sports clubs and other out of school organisations get to know these kids really well and if someone doesn’t turn up to football training or their attitude changes, then it’s those adults who can really make a difference by using that information to help.
“There are numerous ways in which we can gather evidence but we really need that initial helping hand in knowing where to look. We’ll never put a child at risk and we’ll ensure we look at all opportunities to ensure a wider scale investigation can take place in a safe manner for those at risk.”
You can hear more from Rob and Lucy on the issue of County Lines by tuning in to The Beat Podcast by Staffordshire Police. Episode 6 is available on all good streaming platforms from Thursday 18 March.