More than 300 children arrested in Norfolk's biggest ever drugs crackdown

Norfolk police raiding a property suspected of dealing drugs in Heathgate, Norwich as part of Operat

Norfolk police raiding a property suspected of dealing drugs in Heathgate, Norwich - Credit: Archant

Police investigating drug dealing have arrested more than 2,000 people, 300 of them children, as part of a crackdown which they say has decimated the flow of illegal narcotics into the region.

A major investigation by this newspaper has found that although half of the routes through which drugs have come into the county have been smashed, the lives of some people in the worst-affected areas continue to be blighted by drug dealing.

There are some families who remain afraid in their own homes, with some council house residents accusing their local council of being slow to improve security. 

Over the coming days we will report how:  

  • Drug dealing continues to go on in plain sight from addresses which police visit regularly 
  • Social housing blocks still lack key-controlled security doors despite years of pleading from residents, leaving stairwells open to addicts 
  • Residents report finding drugs paraphernalia, needles, and human excrement outside their front doors 
  • One elderly couple in sheltered accommodation thought their ordeal of overhearing fights and stepping over passed-out addicts on their staircase was over when the dealer who lived upstairs died, only to have Norwich City Council give the flat to another dealer known to the police. 

Since 2017, police have arrested 1,824 adults and 312 under-18s across Norfolk as part of long-running crackdown called Operation Gravity, but that has intensified in the last 18 months. 

Norwich Police have seized a "significant" quantity of drugs and a weapon as part of county lines cr

Weapons and drugs seized by Norfolk police in one of their raids - Credit: Archant

The success has been driven by new technology-led investigative techniques, including analysis of mobile phone data, which have slashed the time it takes police to secure arrests and guilty pleas. 

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‘Groomed and exploited’ 

Meanwhile, a change in approach means more of those involved in the drugs trade are being treated as victims who have been exploited by gang leaders, rather than being convicted and criminalised themselves.  

This especially applies to under-18s, with only four of those 312 arrests resulting in a charge. 

Many of those children were forced to travel over 100 miles from London to deal in Norfolk. Of the 312 children, 189 were from outside of the county and detectives have been working more closely with colleagues in the Metropolitan Police. 

DCI Sonia Humphreys, who leads Norfolk Police’s drugs taskforce, said: “Nobody wants to see children criminalised, and the last thing we want is for children to find themselves in secure units or young offending institutes.  

“You’ve got kids in there from the age of 10 or 11 onwards, and if you look at some of their backstories many have had horrendous experiences - neglect or abuse as a child, and that leads to problems in school, and then exclusion from school, and once they’re excluded from school they find themselves in a position where they’re easily exploited.” 

Norwich chief inspector Sonia Humphreys speaks at the Open House knife crime and county lines discus

Detective Chief Inspector Sonia Humphreys - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

She added: “What the gangs are doing is grooming, and it is grooming for criminal purposes."  

The 'county lines' problem

It comes as Norwich starts to receive special government funding of £5m over three years for Project Adder, a new multi-agency approach to drugs, focusing more on treating addicts, providing healthcare and housing and job training, in order to combat demand for drugs. 

Police figures show incredible progress since Norfolk, and Norwich and Great Yarmouth in particular, was blighted by drugs and associated gang violence just a handful of years ago. 

In late 2016 the violent murder of Steve Stannard by his drug dealer shook the community and by 2019 the Met Police had identified Norfolk as the number one county city involved in the drugs trade, with 416 youngsters implicated in criminality. 

The children, some as young as 11, were caught up in the growing practice of what police call “county lines” - where a London drugs gang sets up a distribution network into a provincial town or city, often using children as runners.

It often operates out of a flat belonging to an addict whom they have blackmailed or threatened in a practice known as “cuckooing”. 

This could be your door next. Norfolk police warn drug dealers in Norwich as they raid a property in

More than 2,000 people have been arrested in the last 18 months as part of police's latest operation against dealing - Credit: Archant

Attitude change

But in the last 16 months, a team of detectives led by DCI Sonia Humphreys has used everything from dealers’ mobile phone records to eyewitness testimony to understand, and then address, Norfolk’s County Lines problem. 

She said: “There’s been a lot of work over the last two to three years to tidy up how we’re recording those county lines. 

“So if children are being used then it gives it a much higher rating on the risk matrix, if there’s violence, if there’s firearms, all those kinds of things.  Because if you’re thinking you’ve got 100 lines, where do you start with that? Where do you put your resources?”  

DCI Humphreys likened the attitudinal change to the way thinking about domestic violence has evolved over the last 20 years, referring to an incident which occurred when she was a detective inspector. 

“I was dealing with a job where a chap had thrown himself out his window, smashed his pelvis, broken his legs and crawled under a bush to get away from whoever and whatever it was that was inside his house.  

“That was cuckooing, and that’s what you see in cuckooing - some of the violence that takes place, and the sheer desperation of people that they would rather face even the effects of gravity than what was inside their house where they should feel safe. 

“We had to start looking at it differently.” 

She and her team now rely as much on electronic data as they do on intelligence gleaned from stake-outs and informants. In fact they don’t even need to find a dealer in possession of drugs to get a conviction. 

Dealer is holding drug bag in his hand on a black background. Picture: sb-borg/Getty Images/iStockph

Around half of drug lines into Norfolk have been disrupted by police - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

She explained: “You can evidence the movements and the nature of what’s happening and the people they’re talking to and communicating with, to evidence that that is a drugs line.” 

Operation Orochi 

Norfolk Police have been working closely with the Metropolitan Police since the launch of Operation Orochi in November 2019, sharing intelligence on the origins of drugs and gangs. 

Through this period and using these new techniques, DCI Humphreys and her team take on average 55 days from receipt of intelligence to arrest, and just a further 110 days before the accused pleads guilty in court.  

They have investigated 53 county lines - the numbers on which addicts contact dealers - closed down most of those, secured 27 convictions, and dealers have been handed 110 years of jail time. 

Police quickly established there were 75 active lines into the county in November 2019, and believe there are currently 30 still operating. 

Last week police forces nationwide launched a week of focused effort on county lines, arresting 1100 people and seizing 292 weapons including 33 firearms. 

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

*This article has been updated: we reported that none of the 312 children arrested had been charged, in fact four of those arrests resulted in a charge.

-Follow the latest from the investigations unit on Facebook

-'The drug dealer lives upstairs' - see Monday's website and newspaper for the latest in our series 

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