Children who are coerced and groomed into smuggling and selling drugs need to be safeguarded and treated as victims according to a police officer tackling human slavery and county lines in Nottinghamshire.
The officer was speaking at an inquiry into the so-called county lines operation in Nottingham organised by Nottingham City Council to see what more could be done by other agencies to help combat the problem.
It involves young and often vulnerable children targeted by organised drugs gangs, often from Radford and St Ann’s.
They are then forced to carry drugs around the country, and youngsters from Nottingham have been apprehended as far afield as Oxford, Scotland and London.
Nottingham is predominantly a county lines ‘exporter’ meaning children are sent out with drugs, rather than children being sent into Nottingham with drugs.
Today’s inquiry heard about one 17-year-old from Radford who came from a comfortable background and was a promising footballer.
After he was groomed by drugs gangs, he told his mother he was going on a football camp for two weeks.
In reality, he was collected by a man he didn’t know and taken to Grimsby, where he found himself in a flat run by drug dealers.
He was told to go and sell drugs and was twice robbed, possibly organised by his operators themselves so that he found himself in debt.
The young lad realised the danger he was in, and contacted police back in Nottinghamshire.
After he was then arrested in Grimsby he was taken back to Nottingham.
As a victim of modern-day slavery, he was given counselling and has received support from Notts Police.
Speaking about the problem with county lines, DS Mike Ebbins said: “Nottingham is seen as an exporter of county lines, so our young vulnerable people are recruited on the streets by organised crime groups, often from St Ann’s and Radford and are sent out to other areas of the country.
“They are taking them outside of the county, and that’s where we are finding them. A victim of county lines will usually be arrested in that area.
“We pick up the victims as they arrive back in our area and we try to piece together what happened and how they were groomed.
“We need to change the perspective with officers and members of the public to show that these people are victims rather than perpetrators.”
“There are a lot of intelligence gaps because by the nature of the business young people don’t tell us about it.”
Steve Harrison works with Nottingham City Council as a specialist project manager for community safety and cohesion.
He said: “It’s a process that’s riddled with exploitation.
“The young people are affected by violence in terms of there being a high level of coercion and a threat of violence.
“If you lose the drugs you are transporting there can be violent consequences.”
Councillor Brian Parbutt represents the Sherwood Ward for Labour, and is the chairman of the committee which convened today’s meeting.
Speaking about why the hearing was set up, he said: “I think we’ve heard a great deal about the county lines issue in the media, and we weren’t aware as councillors the extent to which it was a problem in Nottingham, and the extent to which it was creating a problem in other places.
“We thought a big thing we learned from the discussion today was about how vulnerable these young people are.
“Grooming is a word that was used a lot today, and the fact we have young people who have been drawn into situations in which they have very little control and which they are being exploited by others is maybe an aspect of this issue that we’ve not really got to grips with as a broader community.”
Asked about the police’s response to county lines, councillor Parbutt said: “We thought that quite a lot of activity was taking place, and the police are developing their understanding of how to intervene.
“Generally, this is an evolving area where we think we will get better at dealing with this, but the police seem to have quite an understanding of where we are with this, and I think that has probably improved in recent times.”