Through the Cracks in County Lines

By Dr Tobias Kammersgaard and Dr Chris Devany, published: 23/10/2023. This blog was originally published on the N8 PRP website.

The term ‘county lines’ is used to refer to the practice of drug sellers from larger cities travelling to smaller towns to distribute illicit drugs. Exploitation is common as those involved will often recruit, groom or force young people and vulnerable adults into carrying, storing or selling drugs for them. This involvement of vulnerable populations presents a range of dilemmas for law enforcement and blurs the traditional divide between victim and offender.

Some cases of criminal exploitation may be very clear, such as when very young children become involved or when involvement is very obviously forced and based on threats, debt bondage or coercion. However, other cases may be far more complex, for example, where someone may be initially groomed and entrapped but then later act more purposefully. In some cases, the victim-offender status may shift and evolve over time, especially when a young person transitions from a youth to an adult in the eyes of the law.

“victim-offender status may shift and evolve over time”

Nevertheless, the way people’s involvement in county lines is interpreted affects how they are dealt with, including in the criminal justice system. Police training and official guidelines are that vulnerability should be recognised and that young and vulnerable people should be supported by multi-agency teams, composed of social workers, youth offending teams and other partner agencies, that should seek to help victims of exploitation escape the world they have been trapped in. However, ‘on the ground’, the police are still in the process of learning how best to approach this. In that regard, the overarching goal of this research project is to improve the experience and the outcomes of policing for both the police and the vulnerable people involved in county lines.

Phase 1 – National Overview

For the first phase of the research project, the team is interviewing at least one key person from all 45 forces in the UK. These interviews provide an overview of the participants’ perceptions of the presence, organisation and development of county lines drug selling activity in their police force area.

The interviews also seek to detail each force’s responses to county lines, focusing on how the forces identify and manage the vulnerable individuals involved. The results of this phase will be the basis for selecting case study areas for the second phase of the project.

N8 PRP has been a valuable partner in achieving this ambitious phase of the project. Following a request from our team, N8 PRP police leads identified and put the research team in contact with key individuals with the relevant knowledge in all 12 N8 PRP police forces.

Feet moving over a white line on the ground

Phase 2 – A ‘Deep Dive’

Based on the data and insights from Phase 1, the research team are doing a ‘deep dive’ into three police forces to investigate their specific practices, as well as their work with partner agencies. This will help the team examine ‘promising’ practice’ in county lines policing. The team will interview police officers, staff working on crime prevention and in youth offending teams, and staff from local authorities and non-governmental organisations in the three areas.

The research “will explore the barriers and facilitators of effective policing and support”

The team will also speak to people with lived experiences (PWLE) of supplying or transporting drugs for county lines networks. The interviews will explore what helps and hinders effective policing and support for vulnerable and/or exploited people involved in county lines drug selling networks. To inform the development of the study, the research team have been working with Revolving Doors, a charity that works with vulnerable people and aims to amplify the voices of those that have experienced the criminal justice system, to organise a ‘Lived Experience Consultation’. In the consultation, in the spirit of co-production, the research plans were discussed with a small group of PWLE to gain their advice on Phase 2 orientation and methods.

Phase 3 – Best Practice

Using the findings from Phases 1 and 2, the project team will work together with key agencies to deliver, implement and evaluate a ‘best practice’ case study for identifying and responding to vulnerable people involved in county lines drug selling networks.

This phase will also be informed by Dr Laura Bainbridge’s N8 PRP Small Grant on ‘cuckooing’ victimisation – that is, where drug suppliers, looking for a base for local operations, appropriate the homes of vulnerable individuals. The project has conducted interviews with victims and perpetrators with the aim of developing a tactical plan to help prevent cuckooing for local delivery groups. This will provide valuable complementary evidence and impact activity for the County Lines Policing and Vulnerability project.

The main project (Phase 1 and 2) is running from May 2022 to May 2024, with the possibility of extending the project (Phase 3) beyond this initial timeframe into demonstration projects of promising practice suggested by Phases 1 & 2. Findings from the study will be disseminated in in a short summary, a full-report, as well as in peer-reviewed journal publications.

To stay up to date on the progress of the project, and on other news related to the ESRC Vulnerability & Policing Futures Research Centre, please subscribe to the Centre’s newsletter.

The research project is being conducted by Professor Ross Coomber, University of Liverpool; Professor Charlie Lloyd, Dr Kate Brown, Dr Chris Devany, and Dr Tobias Kammersgaard, University of York; and Dr Laura Bainbridge, University of Leeds.

For more information, please visit the project webpage, or contact a member of the project team.