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Taxi firms and budget hotels could be “complicit” in drug dealing

PUBLISHED: 16:34 04 December 2017 | UPDATED: 17:07 04 December 2017

Police break into a house on Keyes Close for Operation Gravity searching for suspected drugs users. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Police break into a house on Keyes Close for Operation Gravity searching for suspected drugs users. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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One year into the war against drug dealers targeting Norfolk, violent gangs from London still pose a “significant threat” and may be being helped by local budget hotels and taxi companies.

Police hunt through rooms at a house in Keyes Close for Operation Gravity searching for suspected drugs users. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Police hunt through rooms at a house in Keyes Close for Operation Gravity searching for suspected drugs users. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The findings of a National Crime Agency (NCA) report into county lines - through which gangs from the capital make inroads into rural counties including Norfolk, also claims “the true scale of abuse” of children remains unknown.

It is the third report into county lines from the NCA. In the wake of the second, published in November last year, Norfolk Constabulary launched Operation Gravity to tackle a surge in violent drug-related crime.

The NCA estimates at least 720 county lines are active in the UK, which use “high levels of violence” including acid attacks, stabbings and scaldings.

More than 300 arrests have been made in Norfolk and the bosses of two county lines groups - in Norwich and Great Yarmouth - have been jailed since the start of Operation Gravity.

Traditionally these gangs exploit vulnerable locals through “cuckooing” - taking over their homes and setting up a base. But over the last year, the NCA has reported a rise in use of budget hotels and caravan parks.

Evidence has also been found of local businesses such as taxi firms being “potentially complicit” in drug dealing. While there are few confirmed reports, the NCA say they are “generally used to distance the [dealers] from criminality” by obscuring their travel patterns and identity.

Det Sgt Craig Bidwell, intelligence co-ordinator for Operation Gravity, said the force will take a “tough stance” against those who become involved in the trade.

“The use of budget accommodation by county lines groups is nothing new, and we have seen this before in Norfolk,” he said. “Some groups will use this tactic exclusively, others will mix this with the use of cuckooed addresses. I would encourage those operating such establishments to contact police with any concerns that their accommodation is being used by county lines groups.

Police searching a flat at Springbank for Operation Gravity after suspected drugs users. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Police searching a flat at Springbank for Operation Gravity after suspected drugs users. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“Naturally, there will be individuals that will complicitly allow county lines groups to make use of their services whether they are taxi drivers or accommodation providers, I would strongly discourage those people tempted to be involved in such activity and where identified we will take a tough stance.”

Victims of county line networks range across ages and vulnerabilities, according to the NCA report. They include drug addicts, the elderly, those with mental or physical health impairments, female sex workers and single mothers.

They are usually controlled by the use of weapons, including guns, to “enforce recovery of drug debts, to obtain retribution for drug losses or to settle turf wars”.

But vulnerable children, including those who go missing or have mental health issues, are a central concern for the NCA.

“Although the exploitation of children continues to be reported, the true scale of abuse remains an intelligence gap in many parts of the country,” it said.

“Many forces quoted them being as young as 14, although some younger children were found residing at addresses believed to have been cuckooed.

“They focus on those who are particularly vulnerable or at a crisis point in their lives. They are groomed and enticed by gang members to work within the drugs distribution network.”

Det Sgt Bidwell said the exploitation of children was “an area of concern” but Norfolk Constabulary has “robust processes in place”.

“Ongoing work with safeguarding leads across the county aims to raise awareness within educational establishments of child criminal exploitation by county lines groups,” he said. “The aim of this work is to increase the ability to identify young people that may be vulnerable at an early stage to allow intervention work to take place to try prevent some of those people becoming involved in the first place.”

A clear success in 12 months of Operation Gravity is a reduction in violence. Although the use of acid and ammonia attacks is being reported nationally, Det Sgt Bidwell said it is currently “not prevalent” in Norfolk.

The NCA describes violence often erupting as a result of “turf wars” between rival gangs. It is a familiar problem for Norfolk Police, but one they have worked to stymie.

Despite a spike in violence last winter, including the murder of drug user Steve Stannard in Norwich, Det Sgt Bidwell believes “we are in a much better position now than when we started”.

Anyone with information on drug dealing in their area should contact Norfolk Police on 101, quoting Operation Gravity.

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