Police have increased their use of controversial stop and search powers in Norfolk by almost 50pc, as they try to combat 'county lines' drugs gangs.

The number of people stopped and searched by officers in the county rose to 7,193 in the year to March 2021, Home Office statistics show.

It is the third consecutive big annual increase with the number having increased more than threefold from a low of 2,205 in 2017/18.

Part of the increase is understood to relate to operations targeting two particular rival gangs in Norwich, OTM - "On the Money" - and 3G.

The powers are controversial, with critics saying they can be used disproportionately and can unfairly target people from ethnic minorities.

But Norfolk assistant chief constable Nick Davison defended their use, and said the rise reflected an increased focus on fighting county lines gangs.

Eastern Daily Press: Assistant chief constable Nick Davison.Assistant chief constable Nick Davison. (Image: Norfolk Constabulary)

“The emphasis to officers has been to use these powers lawfully and legitimately to minimise the impact of county lines activity and criminality,” he said.

“I have driven home that message to officers in order to keep our citizens and communities as safe as we possibly can, particularly from the harmful impact of drug dealing that is based on the exploitation of vulnerable and young people.”

Tactics among county lines drug dealing had seen the creation of urban street gangs in Norwich, he said.

Eastern Daily Press: Student police officers taking part in stop and search training Picture: IAN BURTStudent police officers taking part in stop and search training Picture: IAN BURT (Image: Archant 2018)

“There are two gangs that we have mapped and we have been targeting them in terms of the crime and disproportionate violence they have been using amongst themselves,” he added.

“In essence these are children, 14, 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, who are going about dealing drugs as an extension of county lines and committing crime against each other in an almost tit-for-tat retaliatory way using knives and machetes.”

The Home Office figures show 5,376 searches last year related to drugs with a further 555 over weapons.

They led to 589 arrests, 424 for drugs, 50 for offensive weapons and 41 for going equipped to commit a criminal offence, though the number of arrests following searches was below the national average.

Nine in 10 of those searched in Norfolk last year were white with 782 searches of people who are black or another ethnicity, the figures show.

In 2014 then home secretary Theresa May reduced use of the tactic saying it was misused and wasted police time.

Their greater use in the last three years follows the national response to a rise in knife crime.

Mr Davison said Norfolk officers were currently undergoing refresher training over the correct use of stop and search powers.

“It is always a fine line in terms of using coercive powers and they need to be used carefully, proportionately and legitimately to make sure that we maintain public trust in what we do on their behalf,” he said.

What is stop and search?

Stop and search is the power given to police officers to search you if they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect you’re carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property or something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar.

Before you’re searched the police officer must tell you: their name and police station; what they expect to find, for example drugs; the reason they want to search you, for example if it looks like you’re hiding something; and that you can have a record of the search.

Eastern Daily Press: A woman has been charged in connection with a distraction burglary in Hitchin. Picture: ArchantA woman has been charged in connection with a distraction burglary in Hitchin. Picture: Archant (Image: Archant)

You can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds if it has been approved by a senior police officer.

These are called Section 60 orders and can be used if it is suspected that serious violence could take place, you’re carrying a weapon or have used one or you’re in a specific location or area.

No Section 60 orders were issued in Norfolk last year.