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Operation Spartans and tackling county lines

The national “county lines intensification week” saw more than 1,400 arrests across all forces in England and Wales. We talk to one investigator in the north west about his strategic approach to the gangs involved

The NPCC said that 671 people were found and safeguarded during the co-ordinated operations and £4.25 million worth of class A and B substances were seized. 

As part of the week-long focus, the Met arrested 249 individuals and safeguarded more than 100 vulnerable adults. 

Since June 2020, the Home Office have funded four pilots in the Met, Merseyside, the British Transport Police and West Midlands to tackle the tenticles of Line offending that spreads to all parts of the country. 

New tactics are being trialled including Drug Dealing Telephone Restriction Orders, and the use of modern slavery charges.

Operation Spartans was a Cheshire-led operation which is currently seeing convicted offenders awaiting sentences that are going through court. 

The eight month operation, which involved surveillance, an undercover officer and other covert tactics, resulted in 41 individuals being charged with conspiracy to supply, supply or possession across Cheshire and beyond. 

During the recent county lines crackdown, Cheshire arrested 50 more people on suspicion of drug offences, and recovered 10kg of cocaine among other drugs.

Last year's Operation Spartans culminated in a raid day on 11 August during which 25 people were arrested while 41 people have since been convicted. There was also one NRM referral resulting from the operation. 

Eleven active lines were closed down mostly in Warrington, but also in Liverpool and Manchester. 

The lead officer in the investigation, Officer A, spoke to Police Oracle about the tactics used.

“We have some entrenched county lines that in different forms have run for a long, long time," he said." And every time, the police take an intervention, whether that be a warrant, a stop check on a car or the line will change  -  by that I mean, different people, different vehicles, different areas, different addresses. But it continues. 

“And our operational objectives are [to take out] these lines as high as we can. The phraseology is to try and cut the snake’s head off as best we can,” he said. 

Officer A explained that there were two ways to target a Lines OCG, you either disrupt or dismantle. The choice between the two will come down to a range of factors including the size and threat of the OCG and the resources available. 

In October of last year, DI Dan Rooks, Regional County Lines Task Force Manager within the West Midlands ROCU told Police Oracle about the ‘Find, Fix, Enforce, Exploit’ model which uses analysts and intelligence teams to identify lines before passing them on to operational teams. 

His Task Force targets the ‘Middle Market’ of County Lines - the line holders. He also, however. said that the value in disrupting networks should not be underestimated.  

Operation Spartans saw a couple of lines shut by themselves in what seemed to be a reaction to warrants or police activity in other areas. 

Interventions were held back until five or six months into the operation and only took place where criminal activity aside from drug possession and supply was detected.This included stolen cars and one male was arrested with a machete. One of the lines was also integrated with the A Team/anti-A Team rival gang culture in Manchester. 

Once a line has been dismantled the difficulty is preventing others filling the gap in the market. 

Officer A said: “I only pick one line, I just go for that line [...] the biggest line in that town, it's got the most threat and risk around it. And by taking that line down, I'm going to have the most impact on that town. 

“Really I'm going to create a vacuum there, so everything else I have to keep on top of in terms of constantly disrupting them, because otherwise, I'll just be enabling one of the other teams to grow bigger.

“For a period of time, you can probably throw everything at it that you've got at your disposal in terms of targeting the lines as they pop up.” 

One such method which was included within the government’s 10 year drug strategy is sending messages out to drug users via the numbers held on graft phones. Spartans used this tactic and was able to signpost people towards support services at the end of the operation. 

In December of last year, the government pledged £145m for county lines programmes across the following three years, a figure which includes funding the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre. 

£780m was allocated to direct individuals who test positive towards treatment or other interventions. 

“If you get some of those users on a diverted path away from drugs that will have an impact on the market, although I would probably suggest it is limited," Officer A said. "[You also want to have] the local LPUs with the community support officers and local beat managers patrolling the areas on high visibility patrols where they know drug activity happens. 

“[It should be] very much intelligence-led, so structured tasking, so that you're getting the reporting of what's new, what's popping up and that could be targeted straightaway.

“I would suggest for Cheshire we are keeping the wolf at the door.” 

Cheshire’s Operation Spartans worked alongside Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the North West ROCU.

Officer A explained: “As I work in the North West area I can say that Merseyside exports a lot of its dealers into Cheshire and other small forces across the country.

“[Some of those larger forces], might not necessarily suffer with the county lines model, because they're the ones that are exporting and and not importing it. 

“Merseyside I know, they are doing what they can in some respects in terms of trying to take a degree of ownership. 

He also called for stronger partnerships at LPU levels in terms of overt policing. 

“For example, that means BTP, smaller forces and other agencies working with the larger forces, having the county lines teams in each of those areas actually talk to each other focusing resources and tactics together. This does take place but I would like to see more of it.

“I do see bulletins that go out referencing county lines, etc, but I wouldn't say the targeting is joined up as it could be on occasions.” 

A further piece of advice that Officer A would give to other officers and teams working on county lines is to always have the sentencing guidelines at the front of their mind. 

Sentencing for drugs charges is split into two elements, firstly ‘role’ for which the categories are leading, significant or lesser, and the second part is regarding the quantity of drugs - which is split into four categories; personal use, less than one kilo, between one and five kilos and more than five kilos. 

An individual in a leading role is accountable for the entire value of a line. 

Officer A suggests have the roles in mind from the beginning of the operation and slot individuals into those roles when you come across them before then building the evidence around them. 

Interventions, he suggests, are best timed for when a team has just had a recent supply to the address, once more enabling defendants to be slotted into the right sentencing category for the offence. 

County lines is an ever-evolving offence, where OCGs adapt to changes in technology, such as with encrochat, but also changes in situation, as with the pandemic. 

Officer A concludes: “Every job has to be treated on its own merits, you can’t tackle everything, and you have to identify where your threat and risk is and then apply the right tactics to it.” 

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