How police in West Yorkshire are stopping teenagers getting involved in crime

Yorkshire's biggest police force has shed light on the ways it is preventing children being exploited by criminals.

West Yorkshire Police says it is wising up to the dirty tactics being used by offenders, and has shed light on why young people may be targeted by criminals.

Children across Yorkshire are groomed by drug dealers who buy them designer clothes and trainers, befriend them, then ask for favours such as stashing drugs or transporting them to customers to lure them into the bottom of a pyramid, at the top of which sit drugs kingpins.

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A Freedom of Information request revealed that, between 2015 and the end of 2019, 270 arrests for dealing Class A drugs were made on people aged under 18.

Police officers are going into schools, while the force is funding community projects in order to prevent young people turning to crime. Picture: PA

The youngest were two 13-year-olds arrested on separate occasions for dealing heroin and amphetamines. The youngest to be charged was a 14-year-old, charged in 2018 with possession with intent to supply heroin and and MDMA.

The force also revealed under Freedom of Information that 229 arrests were made on children found carrying knives at schools between 2016 and March of last year.

Reasons why children are used by gangs, according to one superintendent, are that they receive more lenient sentences due to their age, and that they are less likely to be pulled up and searched for drugs or weapons.

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Superintendent Damon Solley said there are "a lot of young people at risk" of being exploited by gangs in West Yorkshire. Picture: Adobe Stock Images

Meanwhile, many young people who become embroiled in crime or even live in areas with high rates of violence and drugs, carry knives because they feel they need to protect themselves walking to school or socialising.

Superintendent Damon Solley, who is Lead for the force's Operation Jemlock, focused particularly on bringing down rates of serious crime among under-25s, said: "There are a lot of young people at risk of being exploited by older people in drug trafficking rings in West Yorkshire.

"Where drug gangs are competing in turf wars, then younger people are increasingly being dragged into that by older gang members in the drug supply chain."

Although police forces have said how children are groomed by gang members spending money on them then asking for favours in return, there is evidence of children in West Yorkshire being pulled into lives of crime unable to do anything.

229 arrests were made on children found carrying knives at schools between 2016 and March of last year. Picture: PA

BBC journalist Annabel Deas spent a year in Huddersfield investigating the impact of gang crime on children and families in one neighbourhood.

Her podcast, Hope High, which came out earlier this month, revealed how one boy in the town was given a Hugo Boss tracksuit by a gang member he was intimidated by, then asked to look after some drugs for him.

In what Miss Deas said was a set up, the youngster was later robbed in the street by another gang member who stole the drugs, and the teenager was then told he was indebted to the gang for his 'mistake'.

West Yorkshire Police have made 270 arrests on young people for dealing Class A drugs since 2015.

Supt Solley added: "Of course, if you involve children in gangs, what comes with that are disputes between gangs involving young people and in the current climate with all that going on, they feel a greater need to carry a knife.

"If you carry a weapon, you are so many times more likely to be injured, or worse."

Officers now regularly visit schools to educate children as young as nine on the dangers of carrying weapons, and the tactics used by gangs to lure them in.

Louise Hackett, who is the Head of the West Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit, told The Yorkshire Post they were taking a "public health approach" to reduce crime among young people.

"We want to understand what are the drivers and causes of violence," she said.

"Children growing up affected by poor quality housing, debt, abuse, or parents who are affected by alcoholism or are incarcerated, are all more likely to be affected by crime in the same way they are more likely to be affected by poor health.

"What we need to do is try to build young people's resilience and make sure they have trusting relationships with adults."

The VRU currently funds 35 projects across West Yorkshire which work with young people in communities hard-hit by gangs and serious crime.

"Strong communities are really, really important," Ms Hackett added.

"We recognise we can't just solve this problem by enforcement. We have got to understand what the issues are, and what affects, say, Wakefield, different to Calderdale."

However, Supt Solley admitted that while, positive things were being done to create awareness and stop children being groomed by criminals, the problem wasn't going to go away overnight.

"We can only do what we can to minimise the number of young people getting involved in gangs, and sadly there will always be people there to step into these roles.If we put people away, there are always people to fill the vacuum. You have to stop that chain reaction from happening.

"But grooming a person takes time, it doesn't happen overnight. So if we can prevent, or intercept the grooming of a child, that wastes their time and tells them that kids are starting to listen and wise up."