South Yorkshire’s Chief Constable has predicted the ‘county lines’ phenomenon - where youngsters are exploited by big city drug barons to operate distribution networks - may have passed its peak.
Illicit county lines operations operate to sell drugs generated from large cities to more rural - often coastal - communities and use children as couriers to ensure those responsible for the trade remain at arms-length from the street dealing.
The impact in South Yorkshire has always been limited because the county lacks the trademark outlets, though it is acknowledged the county’s drug trade has been involved in similar practices within the county and ‘exporting’ drugs to other force areas.
Now Chief Constable Stephen Watson has told the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner he believes the technique may be facing decline due to a recent focus of attention by the authorities.
He told Dr Alan Billings: “We don’t have evidence to suggest it is a growing phenomenon. I think the problem with county lines is, it was first recognised five or six years ago and had almost been allowed to grow because of ignorance of these issues.”
That has now changed, with the National Crime Agency recently mounting a highly publicised national operation to dismantle some of the networks.
“It is something I imagine will decline rather than increase,” he said at a meeting of Dr Billings Public Accountability Board, where South Yorkshire Police is held to account for its performance.
“We have been focused on child sexual exploitation, given the unfortunate example we all know about in Rotherham. It has been top of the radar for years but there are other ways to exploit children.
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“Some of the programmes we have going are really good in engaging with youngsters, diversion schemes and the like,” he said.
There had been examples of children being exploited in county lines operations, he said.
Dr Billings said he was aware that similar structures had operated within the county boundaries, with some drugs originating from distributors in South Yorkshire ending up in other force areas.
The South Yorkshire force has also improved its internal support for officers in identifying child criminal exploitation, of which county lines is a part, with better information available on its internal intranet system.
Each of the four localised policing districts in the county now also has an officer with specific responsibilities in the area, with a detective chief inspector playing a lead role in co-ordinating work across the force area.
“We are committed to do more to understand these issues,” said Mr Watson. “We don’t want to be complacent this in any shape or form.”