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Protecting vulnerable people from exploitation by organised crime groups

South Wales Police is working with partner agencies to protect children and vulnerable adults who are being ‘used and abused’ by organised crime groups to extend their drug dealing business.

‘County lines’ is an emerging national issue, where organised crime groups from urban areas such as London, Liverpool and Birmingham put children and vulnerable adults between themselves and the risk of detection by manipulating them into carrying and selling drugs. ‘Runners’ will be sent across county boundaries to areas like Swansea and Cardiff to deliver and/or sell Class A drugs at the other end of the line.

South Wales Police remains committed to tackling the drug dealing and violence associated with these gangs, but alongside this enforcement ‘Operation Guardian’ aims to identify the vulnerable people who are potentially coerced and forced into committing crime by urban gangs, and to put in measures in place that protect not punish them.

Assistant Chief Constable Jon Drake, South Wales Police, said

“The drug dealing is why these gangs are coming to south Wales; however the threat to local communities is largely based on how they undertake their criminal business.

“Our number one priority is to protect vulnerable people, and this includes the children, who can be as young as 12 years old, and the vulnerable adults who are ruthlessly exploited by urban gangs to do their dirty work.”

Someone may be vulnerable to exploitation by organised crime groups for a number of reasons, but invariably there is a power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation. Factors include age, gender, cognitive ability, or social isolation; however, a consistent factor in county lines exploitation is the presence of some form of exchange between the victim and perpetrator.

In exchange for carrying out a task, the victim may be promised or given something they need or want. This could be something tangible such as money, drugs or clothes or intangible such as protection, status, affection or perceived friendship. The prevention of something negative can also fulfil the requirement for exchange, meaning a young person or vulnerable adult may carry out an activity due to fear of violence or retribution.

ACC Drake continues

“Any child or vulnerable adult can be affected and it’s important to recognise that is can still be exploitation, even if the activity appears consensual.

“Our aim is to shine a light on this exploitation, and by working together with a wide range of partner agencies including local authorities, third sector agencies, housing associations, train and coach operators, identify abuse sooner so that we can intervene and keep vulnerable people safe.”

Evan Jones, Head of Community Services at St Giles Trust, a charity who is working with South Wales Police to identify and support young people linked to county lines criminality, said

“These gangs are very clever and can quickly trap a vulnerable person into committing crime. This will may be through coercion initially, but will often escalate to violence to ensure that they remain compliant.

“Low level runners and gang members are seen as expendable and easy to replace, and so their physical and mental wellbeing is of no concern to the urban gang.”

‘Cuckooing’ is one example of how a gang will use and abuse a vulnerable person. This is where a gang will take over a drug users’ or other vulnerable person’s home, and use it as base for their local drug dealing. This may be with the blessing of the resident, but more often is as a result of force or the threat of force. In some cases, the resident can also be pressured into selling drugs.

Detective Superintendent Lian Penhale, Specialist Crime, said

“South Wales Police is asking for the public and partner’s help to identify exploitation like cuckooing. So, if your neighbour or tenant is suddenly having many more visitors to their property and at unusual times of the day and night, or you notice that their curtains or blinds are almost always shut, it could be because their home has been has been taken over by a drug dealing gang.

“Likewise you may be in a position as a parent or carer, teacher or health worker to identify that a young person’s behaviour has changed. You may notice that their academic performance is declining or they are persistently going missing from school; you may become aware that they suddenly have cash to splash or new clothes and gifts from an unknown source or; learn that they are carrying a weapon such as a knife. This could be because they have become involved with a gang.

“We’re not asking partners or the public to provide evidence or even to be absolutely certain of what they have seen or experienced, just that if they are in any way concerned that they report it to the police or anonymously with Crimestopppers.”

The independent charity Crimestoppers Wales provides an anonymous route to give information about crime, and offers a bespoke service to young people called fearless. Through fearless, we aim to engage with and educate young people vulnerable to or involved in county lines criminality.

ACC Drake adds

“Ultimately our aim is to make south Wales a hostile environment for organised crime groups, preventing all forms of harm associated with these gangs.”

“This will be achieved by taking a holistic approach, continuing our robust enforcement campaign where we disrupt their drug dealing business alongside holding them to account for the exploitation that they perpetrate.”

Working with Metropolitan Police, South Wales Police recently identified that a young person who originated from south London had been trafficked. Initially the young person refused to engage with South Wales Police due to the trauma they had experienced, as well as distrust of the police. However, patience and careful victim management led to them providing information and arrests were made.