Exclusive by Ross Bryant and Ben Fox
Drug related crime is increasing in rural towns, whilst significantly falling in cities and larger towns in the South West, according to new figures.
The new data shows a national trend, with increasing drug related crime in rural towns and villages, with the increase in County Lines gangs thought to be the major driver for the change in behaviour.
County Lines is the term used to describe urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas, as well as market and coastal towns, by using dedicated mobile phone lines.
The new data shows that places like Tavistock and Bovey Tracey have seen a substantial increase in drug crime, whilst Plymouth and Torquay have seen numbers fall over the last five years. Kingsteignton for example, saw a major increase, whilst Newton Abbot (the closest major town) saw no change in drug related crime.
The new data covers England and Wales and shows figures for every town and city from 2013 to 2018.
‘Drug crimes’ are defined as ‘drug-related incidents reported to or identified by the police that an officer classes as criminal, whether or not the crime results in a charge.’
The increase in County Lines gangs is thought to be a major contributor to the rise in crime in rural areas.
Recently, Truro Crown Court heard how a phone in the cell of prisoner Jerome Douglas was used to communicate with other gang members, adding to fears that County Lines networks are being run from behind bars in the South West.
The gang operated a County Line called the ‘Billy Line’, using five different mobile phones throughout 2018 to distribute around their network in Cornwall.
The other detrimental effect that County Lines has, is that on the lives of young people. It often involves the use of teenagers or vulnerable young adults to ferry drugs across the country, often using violence and blackmail as a recruitment technique to reel young people in to drug dealing.
The gangs sometimes target children in care, some even as young as 12 years old. These drug dealers will often take up residence in a person’s home – known as cuckooing – to sell drugs in the local area.
The National Crime Agency says that more and more children and young people are being referred to the ‘National Referral Mechanism’, a system designed to identify human-trafficking victims, as a result of county lines gangs.
“The county lines model is linked to violence and relies on the exploitation of vulnerable people to make a criminal profit, with organised crime networks bringing terror to the communities they operate in,” NCA spokesman Nikki Holland said.
“We’re working with partners to gather vital intelligence to help us dismantle these networks piece by piece and ultimately protect those at risk of harm.”
In response to the issue of drug crime, Devon and Cornwall Police have launched a campaign urging the public to spot the signs of County Lines and help protect vulnerable people from drugs gangs.
Detective Superintendent Antony Hart explains: “Devon and Cornwall are beautiful counties to live, work and visit, which is why we welcome so many visitors over the summer holidays.
‘While we want to make sure everyone enjoys themselves and stays safe, we also want to encourage people to stay vigilant and look out for the signs of vulnerable people being exploited by County Lines gangs.
‘Large numbers of visitors can ‘hide’ County Lines activity, which is why we are asking residents, visitors and those employed in the holiday industry to make sure, if they see anything which looks suspicious, that they report it – either to us or, if they want to remain anonymous, they can call Crimestoppers.
‘If people know the signs of County Lines, they can help us protect vulnerable people in our communities.”
The Force says that the signs to look for are:
• A young person going missing from school or home;
• Meeting with unfamiliar adults and/or a change in behaviour;
• Using drugs and alcohol;
• Money or expensive gifts they can’t account for;
• A neighbour who has not been seen for a while;
• More people calling at a neighbour’s home – often at unsociable hours;
• Suspicious vehicles/people attending a neighbour’s home.
Discussing the issue, Police and Crime Commissioner Alison Hernandez said: “Catching those who import and deal drugs in our communities has never been straightforward, but modern technology and the threat of County Lines networks has made it more complex than ever.
‘The young people engaged as couriers and dealers may be the easiest for the police to catch as they ferry drugs and money back to the hubs but at this time of year it becomes more difficult.
‘It’s not a small problem, the Children’s Society estimates that there are at least 46,000 children in England that are involved in gang activity.
‘There’s no doubt that there are criminals who look at our part of the world and see opportunities to make money at others’ expense.
‘As with so many types of crime, the key to thwarting their ambitions is to work together so that local authorities, the police and members of the public are alive to the threats and prepared to help in the battle to keep Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly one of the safest force areas in the country.”
The police’s work to tackle drugs comes as a teenage boy was charged with drugs offences after the death of 15-year-old Hannah Bragg, from
Tavistock. She died after taking MDMA last June. Two teenage boys were arrested with one of them, aged 15, being charged with supplying a controlled drug in relation to her death.
Both boys were also individually and jointly charged with multiple accounts of drug supply in the town.
The boys, who cannot be named for legal reasons, have been released on bail to appear at Plymouth Youth Court on 16th September.