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BTP on County Lines: “We didn't think it is as prevalent as it clearly is”

BTP County Lines taskforce lead, Gareth Williams, speaks with Police Oracle about all the force has learnt since they established a specialised taskforce in 2019.

The pure numbers that the BTP County Lines task force are now dealing with and the young ages of some of those involved have surprised the detective who is leading the effort.

“Since December 2019, we've made 1,827 arrests. You need to put that in the context of us starting with 35 officers. That is a lot of work to churn through,” Det Supt Gareth Williams said. [The taskforce now has around 65 officers].

“We didn't think it was as prevalent as it clearly is.

“[This week], we arrested a 13 and 14 year old together, 80 miles from home. We have arrested, not criminalised, but we've arrested several 13 year olds.

“If you'd have asked me in September 2019, before we started this, would I be surprised to find a 13 year old miles from home involved in the sale of Class A drugs, I'd have said yes.

“It's not common - but a 15 year old is extremely common.”

He said that in 2019 the average age of those arrested for county lines type offences was 26, but for BTP it was 18, explaining that “those higher up the food chain will use vehicles, hire cars, etc”.

He did however say that they are starting to see a slightly older demographic now within their arrests, which he hopes is due to their recent activity acting as a deterrent to using children on the railways.

Targetting upstream those who are exploiting children will also have skewed their arrest statistics.

Det Supt Williams also told Police Oracle that the identification of emerging markets has also been a surprise, giving an example that they’ve arrested children in Inverness who are from Liverpool.

“Again, if you'd have asked me about that I’d have said I don't think that's realistic. But it is absolutely the reality,” he said.

Det Supt Gareth Williams 

Home Office funding enabled the force to set up a specialised County Lines taskforce in 2019. They have had consistent funding since then and have guaranteed funding up until March 2025.

Since the establishment of the taskforce, they have made 1,200 drug seizures, around 35 per cent of which is Class A and the rest mostly cannabis. This week, they hit 100 referrals to the NRM.

They currently have six teams in Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Exeter and two teams in London.

“We're kind of the glue in this where we join the dots between different locations,” Det Supt Williams said.

“We're driven by intelligence, we don't have separate patrols or default positions and we review what we've learned every week.

“If you take really common scenarios, like the one [this week], where we have a 13 and a 14 year old from Enfield arrested in Brighton - unless we’re working with the Met police, Sussex Police, the local authorities, then it's going to fall over unless everybody's around the same table.”

To date the force has conducted 660 joint operations with other law enforcement, forces and ROCUs, and in the most recent national intensification week in March, they ran 106 operations - 52 of which were in partnership with other forces.

Recently, they ran a five week target-hardening operation with Hampshire in Basingstoke where they trialled a contextual safeguarding approach – involving a lot of engagement with local businesses.

Within these operations, the force works with local officers at key railway hubs, for example. Having built the relationships it is designed so that the local force owns the operation moving forward.  

They are also currently piloting the same operation compressed into a week.

Giving an example of the type of intelligence that can be picked up through these operations, Det Supt Williams said: “The store manager [at the Boots in Basingstoke] pointed out to us that they saw quite frequently girls from London coming in for emergency contraception.

“We haven't managed to follow that through to see if that is county lines exploitation linked, but it's quite likely.

“When we have arrested girls, and it's about 6 per cent of those that we've arrested have been female. They're often in possession of drugs. And we think that's because they're less likely to be stopped and searched.

“Anecdotally speaking within the national intelligence picture, there’s this issue of girls being offered up as some sort of reward for activity -  ‘gift girls.’

“If you were a London girl, you wouldn't travel to Basingstoke for emergency contraception.”

Det Supt Gareth Williams says he has now invited other forces to reach out to BTP where they think collaboration in this area would be useful.

He again stresses the need to view some of the young people being arrested as OCG victims.

The force has been involved in 20 charges under the Modern Slavery Act, which Det Supt Williams says can be time consuming as investigations.

“We're trying to move this business model into the realms of child abuse,” he explained.

“When we start getting significant sentences for human trafficking, rather than just drug supply, then that is our major deterrent.

“Ideally, I'd like to encourage the prisons estate and the judiciary to get these people to serve in specialist prisons as child abusers because that would make it extremely unattractive.”

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