County Lines Policing and Vulnerability

This national study explores the policing of ‘county lines’ drug dealing across the UK.

Person walking with their feet crossing a white line on the ground. Image: Gudellaphoto from Adobe Stock

County lines is the term given to the practice of drug dealers from urban areas travelling to smaller towns to sell Class A drugs. The gangs involved usually operate across a number of different police force and local authority areas; vulnerable people are often recruited or pressurised into carrying and selling drugs.

The two-year project has three phases:

  1. Build an overview of all police forces in the UK and their approaches to county lines;
  2. Focus on three force areas to provide in-depth knowledge about the types of interventions being employed locally;
  3. Collaborate with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), partner agencies and people who have worked for county lines networks in order to develop ‘best practice’ in this area of policing.


County lines appear to be relatively new but they have expanded rapidly across the UK to become the dominant drug market model for the supply of heroin and crack cocaine outside large urban areas. They consist of criminal networks based in cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham moving in on drug markets in small towns.

A key part of the project will look at how vulnerable adults and children are targeted, recruited and exploited to carry and deal drugs by county lines gangs or have their properties taken over as bases for drug dealing, known as ‘cuckooing’. The ways in which vulnerable people become involved with county lines networks are complex, often without a clear distinction between ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’. That complicates how police forces categorise and process people who are both exploited and criminally involved.


This is the first national study of the policing of county lines drug markets and the partnerships that are involved across a number of sectors in responding to the problem.

It can be a challenge for the police to categorise and process people who are both exploited and criminally involved. Clear divides between victim and perpetrator may obscure the sometimes more complex circumstances of the person initially groomed, entrapped and then, acting more purposively, whose victim/offender status shifts and evolves over time – particularly when transitioning from youth to adult in the eyes of the law.

This complexity forms a central issue in this field. The way people’s involvement in county lines is interpreted affects how they are dealt with, including in the criminal justice system.

Different interpretations of people’s involvement in county lines gangs will form a key focus for this study. It will compare the experiences and approaches of police officers, those working in the criminal justice system and partner agencies with those of people involved in county lines drug supply. By studying these responses, this research will provide insights into which approaches show the most promise in tackling county lines. This forms an important part of the project’s ultimate aim: to develop a better understanding of vulnerability and practical approaches to tackling it, in order to help police, partner agencies and the criminal justice system respond more effectively.


There will be three phases of research in the County Lines Policing and Vulnerability project.

Phase 1

The research team will interview key people from all forces in the UK and from national organisations working on issues connected to county lines, with the aim of establishing:

  • Perceptions of the extent and nature of county lines in each police force area
  • Information about how agencies and organisations are set up and resourced on a local level – and how they engage with national bodies and structures
  • The nature of links between police and other agencies, and any issues concerning coordination and partnership in force areas where drugs are imported and exported
  • Information about policing responses, including targeted operations, preventative work and partnership working to identify vulnerable people involved in county lines networks

Phase 2

Utilising data from Phase 1, our researchers will focus on three police forces. They will interview officers involved in policing county lines, staff working on crime prevention and in youth offending teams as well as those from local authorities and non-governmental organisations. The team will also speak to people who have been involved in supplying or transporting drugs for county lines networks. Interviews will focus on what they have been doing as well as their experience of the police and interventions designed to keep them safe.

Phase 3

Using the findings from phases 1 and 2, the project team will work together with a number of key agencies to deliver a ‘best practice’ case study for responding to county lines.


Lead investigators

Postdoctoral researchers


Talk highlights how policing navigates challenges of County Lines drug markets

Watch our Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Chris Devany speak about how police respond to ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’ across county lines drug networks as part of YorkTalks 2024. Watch the talk.