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The cruel dealers who exploit Devon and Cornwall’s children

Every day of the week police across Devon and Cornwall work to free our communities of the scourge of drugs.

The cruel dealers who exploit Devon and Cornwall’s children

Yet at certain times of the year the force will focus its resources on a specific issue or challenge.

Last week was County Lines Intensification Week, which saw police forces across England and Wales focus on a specific type of dealing linked to child exploitation.

‘County lines’ is the term used to describe gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas, market and coastal towns across the UK using dedicated mobile phone lines.

These organised crime networks exploit children and young people to store, move, sell and deliver their drugs, often making them travel across counties.

They use our children because they are cheaper, more easily controlled and because they think they are less likely to be picked up by the police.

Operations in Devon and Cornwall have disrupted gangs taking drugs from cities like London, Liverpool and Manchester and selling them in places you might not expect to have a drugs problem. Newquay, Penzance, St Austell and Newton Abbot are among towns where police have bust dealers selling crack cocaine or heroin through a county line.

Children and young people who are at most risk of exploitation are those who are homeless or living in care, have special educational needs or mental health problems. They are targeted by gangs and are recruited. Gangs look for children with emotional vulnerability, such as those experiencing problems at home, absent or busy parents or bereavement, and then seek and fill that emotional gap and become ‘their family’, then take advantage of them.

These children and young people are groomed, threatened or tricked into trafficking drugs for gangs who often use intimidation and violence, or threaten the young person’s family. They might also offer money, food, alcohol, clothes and jewellery in return for cooperation, but these gifts will usually be manipulated so that the child feels they are in debt to their exploiter and have no choice but to do what they want.

When caught, and drugs and cash seized, these children are sometimes more afraid of punishment a gang leader will mete out because of goods seized than they are of the criminal justice service.

Tackling the misery caused by drugs in communities is one of my police and crime priorities so I am pleased so much is going on here to deal with this issue. It is also why the five Police and Crime Commissioners from around the South West, with our Chief Constables, invented Operation Scorpion to make the whole region hostile to drug dealers. 

As well as conducting operations around the force area the force is working with Merseyside Police’s County Lines Taskforce known as Operation Medusa, a unit with national funding which now visits our force area regularly. Visits by these well-equipped experts to Plymouth and South Devon last year saw more than 80 people arrested. I am the only Police and Crime Commissioner to provide additional funding to this essential unit so this work can not only continue but be expanded in our area.

But county lines is not just a policing issue. Other agencies and our communities must be part of the solution.

The children recruited by these gangs to carry the drugs, and therefore the risk, should be treated as victims, but the courts must ensure that the serious criminals behind these enterprises are put behind bars.

And we can all become adept at spotting when a property is being used for county lines dealing, or the signs that a young person is involved. This can be that they leave home without explanation, return home unusually late or stay out all night, have unexplained injuries or persistently go missing or being found in areas away from home.

Only by working together we can make our area hostile to drug dealers and explain to these dealers that Devon and Cornwall are no place for drugs. If you witness or have information about drug dealing please contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.