Children as young as 13 have been exploited by drugs gangs looking to run crack cocaine and heroin into Sussex
The statistic was shared by Detective Superintendent Jo Banks at a county council meeting, where she spoke about the efforts being made to stop city gangs from expanding their ‘business’ into smaller towns.
Det Supt Banks said there were between 80 and 90 of these ‘county lines’ running through Sussex, with gangs often using violence to drive out local dealers while exploiting children and vulnerable people to sell their drugs. She said the main age range for those caught up in the problem was 15 to 33, but added: “We have seen children as young as 13 and 14 starting now to come onto our radar. Part of our work is making sure we find out who these children are before they get to that stage.”
The meeting was told that Worthing, Bognor Regis, Crawley, Eastbourne, Hastings and Brighton were key county lines areas, while Det Supt Banks said the issue was a priority for Sussex Police.
Jim Bartlett, West Sussex County Council’s contextual safe-guarding manager, said the dealers would often target children with mental health problems, and adults with mental health or addiction problems. He added: “They target those vulnerable people in order to move drugs around – to undertake some of the drug dealing activity for them – and also to move money as well so they stay under the radar of law enforcement.”
The force also has to protect vulnerable people from ‘cuckooing’ – where dealers take over homes people, usually those with mental health or addiction problems, and use them as bases.
While drugs form the central problem of county lines, the meeting was told the situation also led to other issues, such as violence, modern slavery and guns.
All of these were among the priorities identified by the Safer West Sussex Partnership, which has brought together the police, local councils, the NHS, fire and rescue service, and drug and alcohol action team.
Their work has seen a number of successes. During one week in October, police made 29 arrests, seized £35,000 of Class A drugs and 30 mobile phones.
They also safeguarded seven vulnerable people, including three children, and visited 48 homes to check on the safety of people who were at risk of being cuckooed.
In July, 16 gang members were jailed for bringing crack cocaine and heroin from London to Bognor Regis.
Det Supt Banks is the force lead on county lines and explained to the meeting that it was more than just the age-old problem of a local supplier and dealer selling to a list of clients. She said the difference was that county lines was a ‘fantastic business model’.
“It is fast-moving, it changes,” said Det Supt Banks.
“They are ahead of law enforcement in the money they are getting and the way they are able to change their business model.
“It is a really challenging environment for us to operate in.
“These are really intelligent people. These are people who are not going to get their hands dirty themselves.”
Responding to questions about whether or not prison time was seen as a deterrent, Det Supt Banks said courts were giving longer sentences, but added: “It is a very good business model and I think a lot of them would say it’s worth the risk.”
Advice from Sussex Police
County Lines gangs frequently use vulnerable children and adults to carry out work on their behalf. Have you noticed any of the following in people you know?
Persistently missing from school, college or where they should be, often to be found out-of-area; unexplained acquisition of money, clothes or mobile phones; excessive receipts of texts or phone calls; relationships with controlling, older people or gang association; leaving home or care without explanation; significant changes in emotional well-being; a decline in school performance; unexplained injuries or suspicion of self-harm.
People can report any concerns online via www.sussex.police.uk or call 101. In an emergency, always call 999.