What is county lines? Meaning explained as 1,100 arrests made during week-long drug gangs crackdown

Sometimes children or vulnerable people are the victims who are coerced into county lines by gangs

More than 1,000 people have been arrested and 292 weapons seized as part of a national crackdown on county lines drug dealing gangs.

Forces across the UK boosted activity from 17 May and made 1,100 arrests.

During this week there were 33 guns and 219 knives among weapons seized and 80 drug dealing phone lines identified.

Forces across the UK conducted a week of action from 17 May to crackdown on county lines (photo: Shutterstock)Forces across the UK conducted a week of action from 17 May to crackdown on county lines (photo: Shutterstock)
Forces across the UK conducted a week of action from 17 May to crackdown on county lines (photo: Shutterstock)

Officers were hunting criminals who were transporting illegal drugs from one area to another.

So what is county lines and how many gangs are operating in the UK? Here’s what you need to know.

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What is county lines?

County lines usually refers to an illegal activity whereby drugs are taken by gangs across police and local authority boundaries.

The crime gangs are urban drug dealers who sell to customers in more rural areas via dedicated phone lines.

They are notorious for exploiting children to work as couriers and forcing vulnerable people to let them use their homes to conceal or deal drugs, as portrayed in BBC drama Line of Duty.

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for county lines, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Graham McNulty, said it is vital people are not exploited by county lines.

McNulty said: “The police response to county lines has increased substantially over the past 18 months.

“We have been relentless in pursuing those behind the line whilst doing everything possible to rescue those being exploited.

“Intensification weeks like this allow us to dedicate a burst of activity and resources nationally, highlighting to the public our absolute determination to rid communities of this abhorrent crime.

“We will use all the powers available to us to tackle every element of the county line network because we know the effect violence and crimes associated with county lines can have in our communities.”

How many county lines gangs are operating in the UK?

There are currently thought to be around 600 county lines gangs operating in the UK, down from around 2,000 two years ago.

McNulty added: “It is vital that everyone looks out for the signs of exploitation.

“This may be a child with unexplained cash, a new expensive phone or clothing, suddenly going missing, in possession of rail tickets or taxi receipts, a change in behaviour and new people suddenly appearing at a house or flat.”

The National Crime Agency, which was also involved in the week of action from 17 May, saw operations that led to the seizure of 1,102lb (500kg) of cocaine from a shipping container at London Gateway, as well as the discovery of 37.5lb (17kg) of heroin after a Polish driver was stopped at Coquelles in France.

National Crime Agency director of investigations Nikki Holland said the week of action came after “a very busy year” tackling the smuggling of Class A drugs.

She added: “It is a high priority for the NCA to build on the successes we have had in source countries and along the drugs supply routes, so that organised crime groups land fewer drugs in our towns and cities and prevent them being pushed further afield through county lines groups.”

During the week of action, 904 “cuckooed” homes were visited by law enforcement, and 1,138 vulnerable people were safeguarded.

Cuckooing is where criminals take over a person's home and use the property to facilitate exploitation.

Speaking to Sky News on 27 May, McNulty added officers had to adapt to the changing methods of the gangs.

He said: “Coaches haven’t been running, trains have been a lot quieter, and we’ve seen some movement into cars for dealing lines and taking drugs across the country and we’ve responded to that.

“I think the results from this week show we’ve been successful in reducing county lines (but) it is an ongoing battle.”

Additional reporting by PA.