Through the Cracks in County Lines

by | Oct 20, 2023 | 0 comments

A major new study investigates how police can identify and respond to vulnerability in the context of county lines.

In one of the first studies to conduct a national investigation on the issue, N8 PRP partner the ESRC Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre is investigating the policing response to county lines across all 45 territorial police forces in the UK.

This national overview will provide a basis for a deep dive into three police forces to explore their practices, especially on how vulnerable people involved in county lines drug selling networks are identified, safeguarded and processed by the Police. In this post, Dr Tobias Kammersgaard and Dr Chris Devany, two postdoctoral researchers on the project based at the University of York, look at how the project aims to improve processes for identifying and responding to vulnerability in the context of county lines.

Guidelines to Frontlines 

The term ‘county lines’ is used to refer to the practice of drug sellers from larger cities travelling to smaller towns to distribute illicit drugs. Exploitation is common as those involved will often recruit, groom or force young people and vulnerable adults into carrying, storing or selling drugs for them. This involvement of vulnerable populations presents a range of dilemmas for law enforcement and blurs the traditional divide between victim and offender.

Some cases of criminal exploitation may be very clear, such as when very young children become involved or when involvement is very obviously forced and based on threats, debt bondage or coercion. However, other cases may be far more complex, for example, where someone may be initially groomed and entrapped but then later act more purposefully. In some cases, the victim-offender status may shift and evolve over time, especially when a young person transitions from a youth to an adult in the eyes of the law.

“…victim-offender status may shift and evolve over time…”

Nevertheless, the way people’s involvement in county lines is interpreted affects how they are dealt with, including in the criminal justice system. Police training and official guidelines are that vulnerability should be recognised and that young and vulnerable people should be supported by multi-agency teams, composed of social workers, youth offending teams and other partner agencies, that should seek to help victims of exploitation escape the world they have been trapped in. However, ‘on the ground’, the police are still in the process of learning how best to approach this. In that regard, the overarching goal of this research project is to improve the experience and the outcomes of policing for both the police and the vulnerable people involved in county lines.

Phase 1 – National Overview

man on a train platform as a train goes pastFor the first phase of the research project, the team is interviewing at least one key person from all 45 forces in the UK. These interviews provide an overview of the participants’ perceptions of the presence, organisation and development of county lines drug selling activity in their police force area.

The interviews also seek to detail each force’s responses to county lines, focusing on how the forces identify and manage the vulnerable individuals involved. The results of this phase will be the basis for selecting case study areas for the second phase of the project.

N8 PRP has been a valuable partner in achieving this ambitious phase of the project. Following a request from our team, N8 PRP police leads identified and put the research team in contact with key individuals with the relevant knowledge in all 12 N8 PRP police forces.

Phase 2 – A ‘Deep Dive’

Based on the data and insights from Phase 1, the research team are doing a ‘deep dive’ into three police forces to investigate their specific practices, as well as their work with partner agencies. This will help the team examine ‘promising’ practice’ in county lines policing. The team will interview police officers, staff working on crime prevention and in youth offending teams, and staff from local authorities and non-governmental organisations in the three areas.

The research “…will explore the barriers and facilitators of effective policing and support…”

The team will also speak to people with lived experiences (PWLE) of supplying or transporting drugs for county lines networks. The interviews will explore what helps and hinders effective policing and support for vulnerable and/or exploited people involved in county lines drug selling networks. To inform the development of the study, the research team have been working with Revolving Doors, a charity that works with vulnerable people and aims to amplify the voices of those that have experienced the criminal justice system, to organise a ‘Lived Experience Consultation’.  In the consultation, in the spirit of co-production, the research plans were discussed with a small group of PWLE to gain their advice on Phase 2 orientation and methods.

Phase 3 – Best Practice

Using the findings from Phases 1 and 2, the project team will work together with key agencies to deliver, implement and evaluate a ‘best practice’ case study for identifying and responding to vulnerable people involved in county lines drug selling networks.

This phase will also be informed by Dr Laura Bainbridge’s N8 PRP Small Grant on ‘cuckooing’ victimisation – that is, where drug suppliers, looking for a base for local operations, appropriate the homes of vulnerable individuals. The project has conducted interviews with victims and perpetrators with the aim of developing a tactical plan to help prevent cuckooing for local delivery groups. This will provide valuable complimentary evidence and impact activity for the policing vulnerability in County Lines project.

The main project (Phase 1 and 2) is running from May 2022 to May 2024, with the possibility of extending the project (Phase 3) beyond this initial timeframe into demonstration projects of promising practice suggested by Phases 1 & 2. Findings from the study will be disseminated in in a short summary, a full-report, as well as in peer-reviewed journal publications.

To stay up to date on the progress of the project, and on other news related to the ESRC Vulnerability & Policing Futures Research Centre, please sign up to the Centre newsletter here.  

The research project is being conducted by Professor Ross Coomber, University of Liverpool; Professor Charlie Lloyd, Dr Kate Brown, Dr Chris Devany, and Dr Tobias Kammersgaard, University of York; and Dr Laura Bainbridge, University of Leeds.

For more information, please visit the project webpage, or contact a member of the project team.

About the Authors

Dr Tobias Kammersgaard  is Postdoctoral Researcher in the Vulnerability & Policing Futures Research Centre at the University of York. Within the Centre, Tobias is working on the County lines policing and vulnerability project, the Mental health and routine police work study and on the Q methods study of vulnerability.

Tobias has a PhD in Social Science from Aarhus University, Denmark, were he worked as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research from 2020- 2022.

In his research, Tobias has focused on the policing of various marginalised groups, including people who use drugs and ethnic minorities in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This research has often focused on the ‘softer’ and less coercive aspects of policing, including community policing, police-led diversion and harm reduction policing. In that regard, Tobias is particularly interested in criminal justice interventions that operate in the space between care and control. His work on these subjects has appeared in recognised journals across different research fields, such as ‘Policing & Society’, ‘Criminology & Criminal Justice’ and ‘International Journal of Drug Policy’.

Dr Chris Devany is Postdoctoral Researcher in the Vulnerability & Policing Futures Research Centre at the University of York. Within the Centre, Chris is working on the County lines policing and vulnerability project and on the Q methods study of vulnerability.

His research career so far has focused on how traditionally marginalised groups and people experiencing vulnerabilities are impacted by policy reform.

His most recent project explores the use of anti-social behaviour powers on street-sleeping homeless people across England and Wales, from the perspectives of those currently experiencing homelessness and service providers. In September 2021 he was awarded his PhD from the Centre for Regional Economic Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University exploring the lives of young men who were not in education, employment or training and not accessing the welfare state.

Alongside this body of research Chris has also supported a range of contract research projects for community-based organisations and schemes designed to address youth unemployment, delivered lectures and seminars on a breadth of topics, and managed a special issue of the ‘People, Place and Policy’.