Coronavirus: County lines drug dealers ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ during lockdown, say police

Pandemic could provide ‘unexpected opportunity’ to tackle exploitative drug dealing activity, officers say

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 20 April 2020 07:59
Police raid property used by 'county lines' drug dealers

The coronavirus pandemic could provide an unexpected opportunity for police forces to tackle county lines drug dealing as the lockdown means criminals “stick out like a sore thumb”, senior officers have said.

They said a reduction in street crime such as assaults and burglary had also allowed police more time to be proactive in focusing on the issue.

But officers cautioned that the pandemic could also lead county lines networks to move the trade “behind closed doors” and into the homes of vulnerable individuals during lockdown.

County lines involves gangs in cities using children as young as 11 to deal mostly heroin and crack cocaine over a network of dedicated mobile phones in smaller towns and rural areas across the country.

Leroy Logan, a former superintendent who retired from the Metropolitan Police in 2013 after 30 years of service, told The Independent the lockdown could be a “blessing in disguise” for efforts to tackle the crime.

“I would like to think that the sophistication of police is improving to the extent that they can come to terms with this a lot earlier than they have in the past. They now have more time to focus on certain crimes,” he added.

He said it was “too early to say” how the pandemic would affect the operation of county lines networks, but added that it was clear that it was forcing gangs to change their business model.

The former police officer said this could mean more of the distribution of drugs was now going on in houses belonging to vulnerable people that are taken over by dealers – known as “cuckooing”.

“Because of the reduced footfall on the streets and the reduced traffic on the roads and on public transport, there is less anonymity for the dealers, and the higher the chance of them sticking out like a sore thumb,” he said.

“These groups will be doing their own risk assessment. They have to think about how they pass on their drugs in a more sophisticated way so it’s less apparent. They can’t rely on standing on street corners like they used to.

“A lot of it will be going behind closed doors. They’ll utilise vulnerable people. We’ll see a lot more premises taken over by them to distribute and to sell. The rising issue of domestic violence during this time – as well as children not being in school – creates a wealth of vulnerability that these dealers can capitalise on and utilise.”

Detective Superintendent Jo Banks, of Sussex Police, said the pandemic presented an unexpected “opportunity” for police to hit the drug trade as dealers draw more attention to themselves when they go outside.

“It’s afforded us an opportunity to do more of the disruption because they do stand out. When you look out at our streets their activity is drawing attention. We are actually making far more arrests and working still with our partners to be able to do that,” she said.

Det Supt Banks said the reduced use of the railways – normally a key part of the county lines business model – would be making it more difficult for county lines networks to follow their normal strategies.

“It’s an ever-changing world and one of our biggest challenges has always been that the people behind county lines are really quick to change that business model. The demand for drugs hasn’t changed but how the drugs networks are operating has changed,” she added.

Some campaigners say however that the county lines business have already established a successful model for working during the lockdown period, and that their trade is “thriving”.

Chris Wild, a campaigner for children in care and a former care home manager, told The Independent that young people involved in the trade had told him they were the “busiest they have ever been”.

“The police are saying these people are going to be able to stand out. I don’t believe that at all. These kids are groomed into working specifically to go under cover,” he said.

“If they can’t take a train, they’re going up and down the motorway instead. They’ll always find a way. We’re talking about a billion-dollar business here. If someone gets stopped then the next person is imminently ready to deliver.”

Michael Gove suggests there should be a 'public debate' over easing lockdown measures

Mr Wild said county lines gangs were also capitalising on the increased vulnerabilities of children in care during the pandemic, making them an “easy target”.

“Staff aren’t turning up to care homes, social worker numbers have been reduced. Some young people aren’t receiving their weekly financial support and they get no answer when they call the council,” he said.

“That money is a matter of life or death. And if someone is going to give them £200 to deliver some drugs, they’re going to do it.”

He said the trade was also being helped by the “huge demand” for drugs during the pandemic, saying that because people are now staying at home, more are taking drugs, adding: “It’s huge at the moment, and the people I’m speaking to are out there making money.”

Mr Wild’s remarks differ from recent findings from the Policy Exchange think tank, which warned that the loss of the nighttime economy during lockdown could generate a dramatic reduction in purchases of drugs, leading to an increase gang violence as drug dealers compete over a shrinking market.

It comes after Lynne Owens, the director-general of the National Crime Agency, warned last week that drug dealers were disguising themselves as key workers to avoid police during the lockdown, and that gangs were dealing from supermarket car parks in an attempt to blend in with crowds.

Provisional data from the 43 regional police forces in England and Wales show a 28 per cent fall in overall crime in the four weeks to 12 April, compared with the same period last year.

Serious assault and robbery have both fallen by 27 per cent, with rape and residential burglary down 37 per cent and shoplifting halved.

A government spokesperson said: “The current coronavirus outbreak will not stop us carrying out our vital work in this area, and the government is investing £20m this year to crack down on the county lines gangs who are exploiting our children and impacting our communities.

“We are working with the police and a range of partners to ensure parents and children can access the support they need.”

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