Exclusive: The senior officer in charge of policing the movement and transportation of drugs in the UK has told ITV News Tyne Tees County Lines on the transport network is 'under-reported' in the North East.
The National Police Chiefs' Council's (NPCC) Detective Inspector Stuart Liddell, of the National County Lines Coordination Centre, said he wants to encourage the public, transport companies and police officers to recognise the "risk indicators" associated with young people travelling on the network and to report anyone they believe could be involved in County Lines drugs gangs.
ITV News understands that, of the 140 under 18s found to be involved in County Lines on the UK transport network in the last year, only six were caught in our region, but it is thought the real figure could be much higher.
Speaking during an operation on the rail network, Detective Inspector Liddell also warned County Lines gangs that they will be disrupted if they enter the region.
Our concern is that potentially County Lines is under reported in the North East and Yorkshire, so it’s really important that operations like today show that we are taking the threat seriously and we encourage the public, our partners on the trains, the train operators and the police to identify the risk indicators, to look for children travelling on their own, to engage with them or certainly to report to law enforcement the concerns that they have. We have had some activity here and its been stamped out very quickly and the message would be that will continue to be the case.
Det Insp Liddell's concern about under-reporting specifically on the transport network may be tempered by recent figures from Crimestoppers, which suggest there has been a 180 per cent increase in 'overall' County Lines reports in the North East this year up to September.
According to the figures, last year there were only five anonymous reports, but this year so far Crimestoppers has received 14 reports.
What is County Lines?
'County Lines' is a term used when drug gangs from big cities, like London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool expand their operations to smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers and exploiting children and vulnerable people to sell drugs. Those drugs are often transported using the rail network.
County Lines Operation
ITV News Tyne Tees was given exclusive access to a British Transport Police operation between Newcastle Central Station and Darlington train station.
During the action covert and overt officers approached young people who were travelling on the train network alone.
The BTP officer heading up the operation, Sergeant Bob Smith, told ITV News that the young people they target match a certain profile.
We monitor people approaching the uniformed officers. They might be people on their own, looking very vulnerable, using a mobile phone a lot, carrying a bag. It's them people that we’re particularly interested in, because we feel that that’s the profile that fits the people that are carrying drugs on the railways.
Several young males were approached during the operation. One child, who was only 12-years-old, was located standing on a bridge in Newcastle station with a scooter.
Plain clothes officers approached him and asked why he was not in school. Although he was not in school, he claimed he was just "train spotting". The officers gave him a leaflet explaining what County Lines is and told him to pass it onto his parents.
Another male was approached, who became very nervous when speaking with the police.
One of the officers, PC Omid Aslanbeigi, told ITV News "if you noticed in our interaction with him we pulled him to one side and he was really, really nervous, legs were shaking, arms were going. We look out for signs like that because they’re the things that we can build the grounds on to actually go for a search."
Another male teenager actually was stopped and searched. The 18-year-old admitted that he does smoke cannabis and that he was carrying a grinder, which is used when preparing the drug. PC Aslanbeigi and his partner searched the man and his bag, as he fit the profile of somebody who could be transporting drugs.
So obviously this lad’s admitted to smoking some cannabis. We’ve got more grounds there to have a look and see what he’s got on him. Obviously a lot of people will tell us things that aren’t necessarily the truth. Sometimes they’ll even use a small amount of cannabis as a bit of a decoy to potentially hide a large amount of drugs and that’s something that we see quite a bit as well.