What has Suffolk done to fight the battle against county lines?
- Credit: Staff
Recent years have seen the emergence of 'county lines' drug trafficking across the country – but what has Suffolk done to tackle the violent and exploitative trade?
The model has been recognised in Suffolk as far back as 2014, when a police threat assessment noted the supply of Class A drugs to Ipswich and other towns was being led by street gangs from London.
A University of Suffolk report, commissioned by the county council's public health and community safety team in 2017, exposed how county lines thrived on the exploitation of local young people and vulnerable adults.
In response, the county council launched an action plan to make Suffolk a less viable market for county lines by safeguarding the young and vulnerable, improving understanding of the business model among professionals and reducing the risks to dependent class A drug users.
A multi-agency approach to county lines was developed between local authorities, the police, health service, charity sector and other partners.
Detective Chief Superintendent Eamonn Bridger explained that the county lines model worked by city-based organised crime groups outsourcing their own supply lines and moving into towns to maximise profits, creating local tensions and gaps to exploit.
Supply was controlled by single mobile phone numbers, with a mass marketing approach to contacting users by text and messaging apps.
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"It was important for us to recognise what was a growing problem," he said.
"One of the key issues around drug crime is demand and supply. While demand exists, the supply will be exploited by organised criminals.
"Over a number of years, we saw a shift in criminal behaviour and an infiltration of the drug supply in county areas.
"We saw much higher levels of violence used to enforce debts or take control of dealing territory.
"There was an increased willingness to exploit vulnerability; through the use of children for the movement of drugs, and the homes of vulnerable adults being taken over.
"What needed to happen was a greater acceptance and willingness to say it's much broader than focusing on the criminal elements, and to work with partners around early intervention and making those areas affected by county lines feel safer.
"Targeting those who sit behind it takes a longer time and a more strategic way of thinking. We've been supported by legislative changes, better communication with data providers, and the funding of teams dealing with high-end county lines at the Metropolitan Police.
"We've seen local taxation being put directly towards this work to massively increase our proactive capability.
"We're renowned by the Met as being one of the most forward thinking and proactive forces.
"We've been very successful in reducing the threat posed by county lines, but we're not complacent. We know it's still an issue and we'll continue to do our bit in the partnership. We mustn't stop, because if we're not ready for the next adjustment, we potentially risk allowing things to move back to how they were."
By the end of 2019, the number of county lines running into Suffolk was more than halved to 19 from a peak of 43.
While enforcement has played an important role, early intervention has aimed to prevent young people becoming involved in the first place.
The Suffolk Against Gang Exploitation (SAGE) Team, funded by Suffolk Public Sector Leaders, was established in 2018 as part of the county's three-year work programme to tackle gangs and county lines.
Earlier this month, Suffolk Public Sector Leaders pledged an additional £1.4million for a new work programme to run from April until March 2024.
Clair Harvey, county council community safety lead, said an independent evaluation of progress on the work programme last January found that Suffolk was ahead of other parts of the country in terms of partnership working and commissioning the input of experts from other sectors.
"One of the real successes was levering external funding," she added.
"We had a £5,000 budget when we started the programme following the report."
She said the programme had offered training to 23,000 people and was held up for good practice by the Local Government Association.
"Following the research commissioned from the university, individuals from leadership teams got together to say not only are we committed, but we're going to give you the resources," she added.
Other work has included the commissioning of additional substance misuse services and programmes designed to upskill young people to develop thinking skills and problem solving.
Catherine Bennett, Youth Justice Board county lines Pathfinder lead, said specific training had been delivered to different professions, like GPs, probation officers and housing authorities.
She said all played a part in both detecting and disrupting exploitation.
"In equal measure, we have to be taking enforcement action, or you end up on a hamster wheel of diversion, without actually solving the problem," she added.
She said some of the SAGE team's great successes had been around the voluntary involvement of young people, and initiatives like the FLATS (Families Learning About Thinking Skills) programme, which builds on strengths and offers practical solutions like funding the cost of a shirt and trousers for a job interview, or the cost of a bike to get to and from college.
"Pathfinder focuses on reducing the number of county lines and reducing the number of people involved," she added.
"It looks at intervention and how we keep children safe."
Police operation credited with taking down drug line bosses
Police are saluting the early success of an operation to target the suspected controllers of county lines drug gangs.
Suffolk police have made 11 arrests in recent months as part of the joint operation with the Met.
Operation Orochi was established last February with the aim of shutting down drug-dealing between Suffolk and London at their source.
The collaboration focuses on tackling drugs supply by going after county lines controllers, rather than the runners transporting the drugs.
Officers from Suffolk's serious crime disruption team share intelligence with their Met counterparts, who then investigate to identify the line controller and their location, allowing the team to develop relevant information and intelligence, conduct enforcement and build a case through to conviction.
In August last year, two men were jailed for six years after they were convicted of running a county lines operation to Haverhill.
Christopher Prosser, 23, and 26 year-old Maverick Dwyer, both of Alder Walk, Ilford were jailed after admitting supplying crack cocaine and heroin to drug users in Haverhill.
The same month, Met officers arrested a 21-year-old man from Dagenham, who was subsequently charged by Suffolk police for drug offences.
Ronnie Downes, of Winterbourne Road, Dagenham was found guilty after a five day trial of being concerned in the supply of Class A drugs in the Ipswich area.
Downes, who was involved in running the 'Jonsey' line, was jailed for eight years at Ipswich Crown Court earlier this month.
In September, following his arrest in Croydon, 20-year-old Joshua Campos, of Ashley Road, in Thornton Heath, London, was charged with two counts of being concerned in the supply of class A drugs in Bury St Edmunds.
Campos, who was also charged in relation to drug offences in North Somerset in a separate case, was convicted at Swindon Crown Court last week and sentenced to four years in prison.
In December, officers arrested a man in Cheshunt in connection with drug offences linked to Ipswich.
Adam Kasule, 29, of Sydney Road, Hornsey, was charged with being concerned in the supply of Class A drugs and possession with intent to supply Class A drugs.
He pleaded guilty to all counts in January and now awaits sentencing in April.
Detective Chief Superintendent Eamonn Bridger said: "Op Orochi is a great example of collaborative working with the Met police to bring these ruthless, violent drug dealers to justice.
"These carefully planned operations have a powerful impact in terms of shutting down a significant number of county lines at their source with immediate results.
"We are able to share intelligence in real-time, leading to fast-time investigations. It means that we’re in a strong position to charge and remand the controller of the drugs line on the day of arrest, before they have an opportunity to pass the drugs line to an associate; effectively shutting it down.
"These are some great results but we cannot rest on our laurels. The intention is to continue to work with our partners to focus on those who are most affected in our communities. The force is also continuing its work with other police forces in the east to tackle drug crime as we realise the issue is one that is cross-border and that has a wider impact that is not limited to Suffolk.”