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County lines response falls short

Current policing models are too disjointed to allow for the most effective response to ‘county lines’ drug dealing, according to the police inspectorate. Cross-border crime requires a cross-border response, it says.

A report, titled Both sides of the coin: The police and National Crime Agency’s response to vulnerable people in ‘county lines’ drug offending, highlighted the following achievements, notes the setting up in 2018, of a national county lines co-ordination centre (NCLCC). However, says Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), lack of a fully integrated, national response meant that investigations are often less effective than they should be. That centre manages law enforcement activity during dedicated ‘weeks of action’ against county lines. These are worthwhile events, but should be more focused, according to inspectors.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Phil Gormley said: “County lines offending is a pressing issue for law enforcement in the UK. It is a cross-border phenomenon involving criminals working across regions, to deal drugs and exploit vulnerable people. To tackle cross-border crime, there needs to be a cross-border response. Our inspection revealed that policing is currently too fragmented to best tackle county lines offending. Although we did see many excellent examples of collaboration, we concluded that the current approach does not allow for the level of coherence needed. Our report therefore contains a list of recommendations designed to facilitate the creation of a national, co-ordinated response to county lines offences.”

Shortcomings, the inspectors found, include organised crime mapping (as used to prioritise investigations), competing priorities and the limited use of telecommunication restriction orders.

As for police using the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the report noted that a survivor of county lines exploitation said that some offenders coach their recruits (vulnerable or otherwise) to say they have been trafficked if they are arrested.

County lines challenges are symptoms of a bigger problem; namely with the 43-force structure of policing in England and Wales, and whether it is fit for purpose in the 21st century, the report says.

For the 38-page report, visit


Detective Supt Gareth Williams, who heads the BTP (British Transport Police) county lines task force, said: “We understand the impact county lines drug gangs can have on some of the most vulnerable in our society and we’re committed to tackling this head-on. It is encouraging that our dedicated work to tackle these poisonous gangs is being recognised, especially our work to train our rail industry colleagues to help us in the battle against organised crime.

“We will continue to be at the centre of this activity, working to increase the resilience of the railway network and help ensure the vulnerable children and adults exploited by gangs are correctly cared for.”

The BTP points out that the railways are a common avenue used by city gangs to transport drugs and cash into less populated areas – often using children and vulnerable adults. The force says it has a new county lines task force and is recruiting drug detection dogs.

For the NPCC (National Police Chiefs’ Council) the lead for county lines, Met Deputy Assistant Commissioner Graham McNulty, acknowledged room to improve. He said: “Police are committed to dismantling violent county lines networks and protecting the young and vulnerable people who are exploited by them but we can’t do it alone. Schools, health and social care services, charities and others have a critical role in ending this evil practice and we will continue to work closely with them.”

Briefly, county lines is defined by the inspectors as gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas in the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’, typically from city to shire and small town.


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