POLICE across Sussex are keeping up the pressure on ‘County Lines’ and other drug dealers.

During just one week from 14 to 19 September, as part of the latest phase of coordinated law enforcement activity across the UK, officers in Sussex made 29 arrests, and seized more than £15,000 worth of drugs, 47 mobile phones, and 13 weapons, mainly knives.

In the same week, local officers visited 68 addresses where people were at risk of being ‘cuckooed’ to check on their safety.

They also identified and took safeguarding action for five particularly vulnerable people who needed extra help and support from the police and local services.

Officers in Eastbourne stopped a woman from West London in Seaside and arrested her on suspicion of conspiracy to supply Class A drugs. They seized heroin, crack cocaine, and a mobile phone.

Detective Superintendent Stuart Hale, the force’s lead on combating county lines, said; “Even during the recent lockdown we have been continuing every day to disrupt dealers who try to deal dangerous drugs across our communities and we target those who use children to sell drugs or those who buy drugs from children. We investigate and prosecute, working relentlessly and targeting those who would bring harm to local people, including often the most vulnerable.”

And while the daily task of tackling ‘county lines’ dealers never stops, officers found that the pandemic presented extra opportunities for disruption.

Reduced transport in the early stages of the pandemic hampered the abilities of gangs to move their product. This led to reduced travel and supply and the commodity becoming more expensive. Criminals were operating in a more dangerous environment.

There were less people around, and reduced demand on police in the initial phases meaning officers nationally could increase their proactivity. It was riskier to transport goods by road and public transport.

As restrictions have lifted, police have started to see those involved in this criminality trying to return to their normal methods of operation. The streets are busier, their criminality is less visible.

Stuart Hale adds; “Local crime is often a direct result of major drug distribution via county lines and by working together with partners to shed a light on this often hidden crime. We are sending a clear message to drug dealers that they cannot expect to go undetected in Sussex.”

‘County Lines’ is a term used by Police and partner agencies to refer to drug networks, both gangs and organised crime groups, from large urban areas such as London, who use children and young people and vulnerable adults to carry out illegal activity on their behalf. Gangs dealing drugs is not a new issue but the extent to which criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults, as well as the increasing use of violence, has become an inherent part of it through ‘County Lines’ makes it especially damaging.

“The organised crime groups tend to use a local property, generally belonging to a vulnerable person, sometimes a drug user, as a base for their activities. This is known as ‘cuckooing’ and will often happen by force or coercion. In some instances victims have left their homes in fear of violence. Much police work involves identifying these victims and helping them.

“Police continue to see children being exploited by criminal gangs to supply drugs in Sussex. We have experienced children travelling from London to Sussex to deal drugs on behalf of county line gangs as well Sussex children being exploited and targeted by London gangs to deal drugs locally. Our priority is to identify those children at risk of criminal exploitation and once identified work with partner agencies to put the appropriate safeguarding measures in place. “

The areas in Sussex most effected by the drug trade from London are the larger coastal towns, with established drugs markets that can be exploited locally, including Hastings, Eastbourne, Worthing, Bognor, and Brighton, but also towns such as Crawley.

Stuart Hale adds; “Under the overall campaign banner ‘Fortress’ we use the range of legal powers to tackle this problem, ranging from the Misuse of Drugs Act to Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking legislation.

“We also work closely with other agencies to support those vulnerable adults and children who are exploited by county line gangs. This includes regular visits to those adults at risk of cuckooing and raising awareness with those agencies engaged with children to ensure that information is shared effectively to prevent young people being drawn in to this criminality.”

There are currently some 90 ‘deal lines’ in operation in Sussex at any one time, often overlapping with other force areas, but that figure fluctuates on a regular basis. A ‘deal line’ is the dedicated mobile phone line to take orders from drug users.

The County Lines response isn’t just a policing one. Effective collaboration between law enforcement and safeguarding organisations and also the private sector industries is a vital part of both the national and local response.

Members of the public can also help, the best advice is to trust your instincts – if somebody shows signs of mistreatment, or a child seems to be travelling long distances or is unfamiliar with a locality, you can report suspicions to local police on 101.

As part of the Intensification Week, The Children’s Society has rolled out its #LookCloser awareness campaign across all force areas in partnership with the police.