Drug dealers targeting ‘Norfolk’s children’ in new tactic
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Drug dealers are targeting schools in Norfolk and recruiting local youngsters to act as mules, a senior police officer has warned.
It comes as intelligence coming into Norfolk Constabulary through its Operation Gravity campaign suggests the number of active 'county lines' groups has halved locally.
Gravity has been running since December 2016, when the force declared a critical incident over the level of violence within drug dealing groups.
Based on a single phone line, the groups operate by recruiting teenagers or drug addicts into the business, often cuckooing their homes.
More than two of every tenth arrest during the campaign has been of someone under the age of 18, as London youngsters are sent into the county to courier money or drugs.
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The youngsters – referred to by the gangs as 'Bics' because of how disposable they are – can be 'rented' or 'bought' for up to £5,000 to work on a line.
A single county line phone, meanwhile, can be worth up to £20,000 a week.
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But police are warning of a 'worrying' new trend emerging, as drug dealers target 'Norfolk's children'.
Of more than 900 arrests made as part of Operation Gravity, around 200 were of people aged under 18, Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Nick Davison said.
'The vast majority of those do not have a Norfolk address, but we are seeing an increasing number of individuals who are Norfolk's children,' he added.
'That is a worrying development of county lines. A lot of the young people are basically just being exploited.
'They are now trying to target middle class children to try to get them hooked into it to courier the money or the drugs.
'We are starting to see that happen with Norfolk's children. They will identify the schools where perhaps individuals are on the fringes.'
Figures from Norfolk and Suffolk police show children as young as 13 have been charged with supplying heroin.
Since 2016, 43 children aged 16 or under have been charged with drug offences.
That includes supplying or intending to supply heroin, crack, MDMA and cannabis.
T/ACC Davison said the force is investing resources into children's social care and a child vulnerable exploitation team to tackle the problem in 'a different way'.
'When it is clear the under 18-year-old can be identified as a victim of modern day slavery the police force and agencies where they come from will attempt to divert them away from that,' he said.
'Some know exactly what they are doing and are fully engaged in the criminal enterprise, while being above the age of criminal responsibility.
'Those who do not have an alternative diversion route will be dealt with in the criminal justice system, but otherwise every effort will be made.'
Those children who are brought before the courts are cases where drug dealing has 'gone too far', the county's police chief said.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey said: 'We are doing our level best not to criminalise young people, but for some of these children it has just gone too far.
'If they are carrying a knife or thousands of pounds of drugs, it is very difficult to say they are in some form of slavery.'
Mr Bailey said when a child is being exploited they will deal with it 'sympathetically'.
'What you will start to see is more and more people who are higher up in these lines being prosecuted for slavery offences,' he said.
T/ACC Davison said around 30 county lines have been disrupted since 2016.
'When we disrupt a line they either stop coming into Norfolk or significantly reduce their activity,' he said. 'They will either disappear or morph into another line in the next borough and reconstitute themselves as a new business, just as we see in the business community.'
Anyone with information about drug dealing in their area should contact Norfolk Police on non-emergency number 101.