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A 13-year-old boy was arrested and taken into police protection after he was stopped at a train station in Kent, with £1,500 in cash and all the markings of being a victim of county lines drug trafficking.
The arrest was part of a much larger week of action where British Transport Police worked alongside forces nationwide to tackle organised drug gangs using the railway.
From Monday 14 September to Sunday 20 September, officers carried out operations from Scotland to the south coast, arresting 80 people and seizing Class A drugs, weapons and illicit cash.
A key aim was to identify and protect vulnerable children that gangs often use to transport drugs on the railway.
Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams, of the British Transport Police, said: “These organised gangs very often use children to transport drugs and cash on the railway.
“The intention is so they can avoid detection, preferring to use children rather than put themselves at risk. These children can clearly be as young as 13-years-old, but we routinely come across those aged 15 and over.
“They prey on their vulnerabilities, using exploitative tactics to bring them onside. They will buy them clothing, give them money, or offer a sense of belonging to children who sometimes have nothing else.
“We treat these children as victims, not criminals, and every effort is made to ensure they are given safeguarding and have support. We want them out of harm’s way and away from the clutches of gangs.”
Since December, BTP has been running a specialist County Lines Taskforce with funding set up by the Home Office.
The Taskforce carries out operations almost daily across England, Wales and Scotland, and were heavily involved in the week of action, targeting key areas where gangs are routinely operating.
Each operation is planned using the latest intelligence, gained from local police forces or from train operators in the rail industry who have trained their staff to identify the signs of child exploitation and County Lines.
To date the Taskforce has made 725 arrests, made 369 drug seizures, seized £245,000 in cash and taken 122 dangerous weapons off the railway.
Thirty-seven vulnerable children and adults have been referred for safeguarding.
D/Supt Williams, who leads the BTP Taskforce, added: “Safeguarding is an incredibly important part of our work. Children pulled into County Lines are put at great risk of violence, whether that’s from members of the organised gangs, or while they’re couriering drugs alone to far flung areas they have no connection to.
“We’re working with The Children’s Society and the rail industry to raise awareness of the signs of exploitation and to encourage people to report it.
“Key indicators include a teenager travelling long distances, alone with a large amount of cash, or avoiding any sort of authority at stations. These indicators are small but invaluable and help inform where we target next. We have a rapidly evolving understanding of County Lines offending and we are prepared to tackle it, wherever the intelligence leads us.”
Throughout the week, BTP officers and the Children’s Society promoted the #LookCloser campaign, designed to encourage professionals and the public to ‘Look Closer’ for signs that a child may be at risk of criminal exploitation.
The campaign is aimed at anyone who may encounter children in their daily lives, including service sector employees and transport workers, as public spaces are often where exploited children are most visible.
James Simmonds-Read, National Programme Manager at The Children’s Society’s Prevention programme, which runs the #Look Closer campaign, said: “Criminals groom children through emotional manipulation, with drugs and alcohol or promises of status and wealth. They then trap them in situations of exploitation using terrifying threats, violence and sexual abuse.
“Any child in any community can be vulnerable but they may be too scared to raise concerns and many do not see themselves as victims because they have been manipulated.
“They may not look or act like we expect a victim should and may for instance be angry and aggressive as these are common responses to trauma. We must therefore look beyond the obvious to see they need help.
“That’s why it’s vital that not only professionals like police officers and social workers but everyone in society is able to look closer for the warning signs of exploitation and report concerns. Only then can young people at risk be identified and offered the help they desperately need.”
If you believe a child is being exploited on the railway text British Transport Police on 61016. In an emergency always dial 999.
Examples from the week:
• A 13-year-old boy from London was arrested in Kent, in possession of significant amounts of cash and was placed in police protection.
• At Stockwell in South London, a 15-year-old was arrested with Class A drugs, as part of a drugs dog operation. He had a train ticket to a city in the South West of England and had been missing for a period. He had £700 in cash and 10 bags of suspected Class A drugs.
• At Preston Railway Station a man was searched by officers. Officers found two large vacuum-packed bags of herbal cannabis and two large blocks of what is believed to be cannabis resin, with a substantial street value.
• In Norwich, two men were arrested for being concerned in the supply of drugs. One ‘deal phone’ was recovered, which linked to a drug line running from London to Norfolk. Drugs were found on the suspects while they were in custody.
• A 16-year-old male was arrested with class A drugs in Exeter, who was from Essex. It is suspected that he was being exploited and he has been referred to the National Referral Mechanism for Safeguarding.
• In Basingstoke, a 16-year-old was stopped with six bags of cannabis, £375 cash and two mobile phones, one of the phones showing evidence of drug supply. On the same day in Basingstoke, a man was arrested with 285 wraps of class A drugs, with an estimated street value of £5000.
• At Andover, two people were stopped in possession of crack cocaine and heroin and the source of their supply was identified. A vehicle was stopped minutes later. The deal line was in the vehicle and all three people inside were arrested.
• Two men were arrested for being concerned in the supply of class A drugs in Nottingham station. They had attempted to rent a car from inside the car rental premises at the station. They were searched, and a large amount of cash was found, which they could not account for, as well as multiple mobile phones.