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County lines: Police chart expanding reach of gangs looking for new territories to exploit

Locations identified in Yorkshire where 'county lines' networks are exporting and selling drugs.
Locations identified in Yorkshire where 'county lines' networks are exporting and selling drugs.

Crime syndicates from Yorkshire’s cities are among those behind so-called ‘county lines’ drug dealing networks detected by the region’s police forces.

Gangs based in Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford are exporting Class A drugs into towns and coastal communities in neighbouring counties where they set up dedicated mobile phone lines to facilitate their distribution.

Read more: Yorkshire communities hit by drug menace as organised crime groups target region’s rural heartland

There is increasing evidence that these gangs, who are vying for new territory alongside those from as far away as London, have contributed to an increase in violence in towns such as Harrogate, Bridlington and Scarborough.

Some forces are also picking up on cases of ‘cuckooing’ – dealers taking over people’s homes – and the exploitation of children.

Teenage boys, mainly aged 13 to 17, have been found to be acting as ‘watchers’ at the homes taken over in parts of the Humber but also receive small quantities of drugs to deal in specific areas.

Evidence has been gathered of some networks bringing in their own members from outside the area to supply drugs. Meanwhile, drug users and women working in the sex trade are being exploited in areas of Hull and the East Riding.

Read more: Growing concern in communities at ‘systematic’ criminality

Detective Chief Inspector Matthew Peach, of Humberside Police, said: “We are doing a lot of work in these communities to gather intelligence, as well as working with partner agencies to prevent vulnerable people getting caught up in dealing drugs.”

Across the border in North Yorkshire, police are aware of several organised crime groups operating ‘county lines’ and had have identified York, Scarborough and Harrogate as targets.

Detective Superintendent Steve Thomas, the force’s head of crime, said the current intelligence suggested the problem was yet to spread into the smaller, more rural areas of the county.

“We look at specific areas, particular crime groups, and we look actively at how we can start to disrupt the activity,” he said. “We’re starting to see some really positive results out of that.”

Read more: Crimestoppers plans regional campaign to educate public on spotting signs

The force has also used ‘cease and desist’ warning notices which are sent to properties believed to be under use by the criminals. Just as the criminals are working across larger geographical areas, so too must the police.

A ‘commodities’ threat desk has been set up by the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Intelligence Unit with the main aim of monitoring how county lines are being run so that operations can be mounted to disrupt the activity and safeguard victims.

Yorkshire forces are also increasingly working with counterparts in the North-East, North -West, Midlands and London.

For those such as South and West Yorkshire which are ‘exporters’, receiving intelligence back from the areas targeted by the criminals is just as crucial.

Read more: Rapid rise in gangs ‘exporting’ members

Det Chief Insp Paul Wilson, of South Yorkshire Police, said: “They’ve done some excellent work in Derbyshire in terms of intervention but in terms of exporting, we’re not going to know unless people report back that they’ve arrested people in Derbyshire. I’m committed to working with these other forces in trying to find a solution.”

“We’re also exploring whether there’s some link between some of our vulnerable missing people, some of whom may be ‘looked after’ children.”

He said had not see any information yet to suggest this, but urged anyone concerned about exploitation to come forward.