Revealed: How ‘brutal’ drug dealers target Ipswich’s homeless


Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

The brutal tactics used by predatory drug dealers to target Ipswich’s homeless when they are most vulnerable have been laid bare by police and aid workers.

Police officers carrying out a drugs raid Picture: KAREN WILLIE

Police officers carrying out a drugs raid Picture: KAREN WILLIE - Credit: Archant

Gangs travelling from London and Merseyside to Suffolk to ply their trade are said to be deliberately choosing rough sleepers as potential clients in the hunt for people they can extort, it has been revealed.

Hooking them on drugs with supermarket-style two for one deals, some are even recruited as “runners” - where they are told to deliver drugs as a way of paying back their debts.

But their “predatory” and “horrendous” actions are now coming under greater spotlight from police, who are carrying out increased patrols and targeting know hotspots to catch the gangs red-handed.

And they have been warned by Sgt Vicky McParland, of the Ipswich Central Safer Neighbourhood Team: “We will find you and we will make your lives a misery.”

The problem, she said, has grown in the past 10 years as the rising price of high strength alcohol has meant more rough sleepers turning to drugs.

But it has also been caused by technological advances in the rise of mobile phones and messaging service such as WhatsApp, opening up another avenue by which “county lines” dealers can bully their customers.

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“People used to congregate around phoneboxes,” Sgt McParland said.

“Now you can go and pick a phone up for a couple of quid.

“Ten years ago, no-one could’ve foreseen the explosion in mobile phones and how it’s changed things.”

Julia Hancock, business manager for the Selig (Suffolk) Trust - which runs Ipswich Winter Night Shelter and Ipswich Hope into Action - said: “I’ve seen the texts they send to guests who are staying at the shelter.

“They have offers and deals, buy one get one free.

“They are literally in the grip of someone who is going to do all they can to sell you more.

“It’s a really brutal world that takes no prisoners. I hear and see the pressure. It’s absolutely brutal and exploitative.”

While she praises police for their actions and says officers do a “great job” tackling it, her fear is: “I think they’re under-resourced.

“They try very hard to focus their resources in the places that will have the most effect - but it’s almost impossible because it’s a mobile industry.

“The dealers don’t get caught because they find a find a lad to call round on a bike - when one is out of action, they find another.”

However Sgt McParland is adamant the dealers do not get away scot free.

“We know where the deals are taking place,” she said. “It’s about getting to the right place to take them out.”

More people today are willing to talk about the problem, she said, meaning there is a greater likelihood of crimes being reported.

As part of the Police Youth Gang Prevention Unit set up in place of the Urban Street Gang Unit about a year ago, officers are also taking more steps to prevent the problem in the first place - for example visiting schools to deliver safety messages.

But she said the main way of stopping the gangs is by old-fashioned detective work, knocking on doors to gather intelligence and catch dealers the act.

“In Ipswich, we think we know who our drug users are,” she said.

“We identify vulnerable addresses that could be cuckooed, go round and do unannounced door knocks.

“We try and disrupt them. If we can start making it undesirable for them to be there, then they will not want to be there.

“It comes down to banging on doors, catching them in the act and putting them off.

“These people do prey on really vulnerable people. It’s horrendous.

“They go for people with mental health issues or someone who finds themselves out and the street and homeless.

“They become addicted to drugs, they become runners and they become preyed upon.

“These gangs just target vulnerable people because it’s easy. It’s predatory.

“The misery they cause to people in unbelievable.”

About ‘county lines’

“County lines” drug dealing has been described as the “biggest threat without question facing Suffolk at the moment”.

Suffolk police and crime commissioner Tim Passmore made the comments at the latest Police and Crime Panel meeting, during which he urged community leaders to work together to tackle the problem and make it a priority.

Two years ago, Suffolk Constabulary set up the Urban Street Gang Unit which Sgt Vicky McParland, of the Ipswich Central Safer Neighbourhood Team, said was mainly focused on catching dealers.

But it was felt that was not solving the problem at its root - so the force replaced it with the Police Youth Gang Prevention Unit, which focuses more on stopping dealing in the first place.

“Before we were going out and hitting the dealers hard,” she said.

“But if you just take these people out, you create a business opportunity for other people coming in.

“The decision was made that more had to be done for prevention.”

As young, impressionable teenagers are often targets for drug gang recruitment, officers have been visiting schools with the message: “A drug life is not the life you want.”

Sgt McPartland also urged parents to be aware of the issues and work with officers to discourage teenager from gang-related activity.