Drug gangs on Teesside 'branding' children to show ownership

Young people involved in the drug trade are being “branded” by gangs as a sign of ownership amid rising levels of brutality.

Family law barrister Helen Scourfield also said drug gangs on Teesside are recruiting children more readily than ever before while police officers working on the ground told ITV Tyne Tees that the use of young people in crime is emerging as a serious problem.

Cleveland Police has the highest crime rate in England and Wales, recording 139.6 crimes per 1000 of the population. That compares to 128.5 recorded by Greater Manchester Police, and 95.8 at London's Metropolitan police 95.9.

The force has launched a proactive policing team using a new style of "Matrix" policing designed to intercept and prevent persistent criminals from striking again.

ITV Tyne Tees carried out exclusive filming over three days with the team, revealing the scale of the crime they are tackling and the lengths criminals are now going to.

Officers working on the ground revealed how young people were being recruited more and more for use by criminal gangs.

Sergeant Darren Williamson, who leads the unit, said they had recently stopped a 15-year-old boy on a bike who was carrying crack cocaine.

He said: "They know we are unlikely to stop a 14 or 15-year-old lad on a mountain bike who's potentially carrying drugs. That's not the case anymore unfortunately.

"I can think back to last week when we stopped a lad in Middlesbrough who had 75 wraps of crack cocaine on him."

Ms Scourfield, a barrister and chair of the Cleveland and South Durham Family Justice Board, said she was not surprised by what police have reported.

Helen Scourfield told ITV Tyne Tees that children are being "branded" by drug gangs as a sign of ownership. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

She said: "There have always been gangs, that's well known but I think the amount of gangs has risen and the brutality in which they deal with people has changed.

“It doesn't seem to matter how old these young people are, if they've done wrong, they will pay for it. Often these young people crave a family environment and these leaders are very clever and they exploit that."

She told ITV Tyne Tees how children and young people are not only being recruited more readily by drug gangs, but they are also being branded to mark them as being "owned" by a certain gang.

These young people are often given new trainers and other "rewards" to keep them working, she added. And those who try to leave face brutal consequences, with family judges now having to place child gang members into care as far away as Scotland and Wales to keep them safe.

In some areas, dealers are becoming increasingly brazen. Police said drug leaders spray numbers on walls in areas to advertise which house they are selling from.

Drug dealers advertise which house they are selling from by spray painting numbers on walls. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

One resident, who was too afraid to be identified, told ITV Tyne Tees people who had lived in the area for years were now selling up. They said: "All you can see is smackheads going up and buying drugs.   You don't need all this, you know what I mean? Frightened in case your house gets targeted.”

Officers at Cleveland urge residents who are plagued by crime to contact them, saying intelligence and information is the only way they can respond to serious problems:

Det Ch Supt Chris Downes, Head of Prevention Command, said: "There is a high level of serious violence and crime within Cleveland Police and that's affecting the communities that we police.

Det Ch Supt Chris Downes, Head of Prevention Command at Cleveland Police, said high level of serious violence was affecting communities. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

"The area that we need to get into is prevention, working on the areas that are hurting the people and the community the most and the enforcement is really really important in terms of our strategy."

Since being formed last November, Cleveland's proactive team have made more than 240 arrests, led over 300 stop searches and delivered 700 pieces of intelligence which helped intercept serious crime.

A spokesperson for the Home Office, which is responsible for policing, said Cleveland's funding in 2023/24 will total up to £162.1m, an increase of up to £5.1m on 2022/23.

They said the area is also in receipt of additional funding, which in 2022/23 included: £1.4m of Violence Reduction Unit funding; £470k of Grip funding and £500,000 of Project ADDER funding.

Although, they admitted officer numbers have fallen by more than 200 since 2010.

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