County lines is about city-based gangs expanding their illegal drugs businesses into new areas, often exploiting children in the process.
When an organised crime group or urban gang from an area such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, or West Yorkshire extends their drug dealing operation into other counties it's often referred to as 'county lines'. ‘Line’ refers to the mobile phone drug lines that organised crime groups market to sell their drugs.
Gangs need people to transport drugs and cash and often exploit children and vulnerable adults to do so. These drugs runners are incentivised with things that they want or need such as money, gifts like designer clothes and trainers, status, perceived friendship, or protection in return for completing tasks. Soon these gifts and intangible benefits turn into threats of what will happen if they don’t complete a task. These intimidation tactics make it very difficult for new recruits to say no, particularly as debts are incurred.
Children as young as 10 and vulnerable adults are made to travel many miles away from home to coastal towns and rural locations to deliver Class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, collect cash, and even carry out enforcement for the gang. Travelling to areas where they are not known by the authorities allows them to fly under the radar for longer, carrying the risk on behalf of senior gang members. This causes obvious problems in our communities as vulnerable adults and children go missing for days at a time, missing school and being away from any support.
Are runners victims or criminals?
Some runners don’t identify as victims as they are unaware that they are being exploited, especially if they are being paid. They tend to be boys, aged between 14 and 17, but can be as young as 10, and when girls are also used they sometimes become victims of sexual violence. Runners may appear to be criminals as they will usually commit crimes while the gang is grooming them, but they are also victims who need help to get out of a difficult situation.
Who do gangs target?
Gangs look out for vulnerable children and adults. People who are at particular risk are often:
- Children in care
- Children absent from school
- Children missing from home
- Single parents on low incomes
- Adults without a secure place to live or who have substance misuse or mental health issues
Anyone can be at risk though. Gangs are now also targeting young people who do not show any of the vulnerabilities above via social media because they fit into more affluent areas well, making them more difficult to detect.
Organised crime groups need a base from which to deal and take drugs and usually secure a base by supplying a user with drugs as payment, building up a drug debt, or using violence as coercion. Sometimes they enter into a relationship with a vulnerable female so that they can use their home. The dealer moves in and takes over the property in what's known as 'cuckooing'. Victims of cuckooing are often frightened to seek help because they fear they may be in trouble for being involved in drug dealing and this poses a risk to their home.
What are the signs?
The key thing to look for in a potential drugs runner is a change in behaviour or circumstances, including:
- Having more clothes, mobile phones, or cash than normal
- Frequently going missing then returning home
- Using nicknames to refer to other people
- Speaking of gang names in the area
- A new boyfriend or girlfriend who may coerce or control the individual
If you think there may be dealing or drugs activity happening at a property, the key things to look out for are:
- Lots of people coming and going, particularly at odd times during the day or night
- Strange smells coming from the property
- Windows covered or curtains closed all the time
- Cars pulling up close to the house for brief periods of time
What are the police doing about it?
We are working collaboratively with the other North West police forces to tackle county lines criminal activity so that we can keep our communities safe. As always we need intelligence coming from members of the public to alert us to potential drugs activity so that we can investigate and disrupt these organised gangs.
How to report drugs crimes
If you suspect there may be drugs activity happening please let us know so we can act on it and make our communities safer. You can do this anonymously if you prefer.
If you think someone is in immediate danger, call 999.
If you believe that someone may be involved in a county line or other drugs activity, tell us by calling 101 or call the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or report your concerns anonymously online at crimestoppers-uk.org.