Knife and drugs incidents shooting up as Covid-19 frustrates county lines cops
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Police officers fighting Hertfordshire’s county lines drug-dealing operations say lockdown restrictions are hampering their work.
It is a Monday morning and four children have been arrested overnight in Hertfordshire over suspected gang or knife crime. Sergeant Helen Croughton has just dispatched two officers to visit them in their cells.
Spending a night in a police cell is a “key teachable moment”, she says, so can be the perfect time to try to persuade them to turn their lives around. Three of the children have already been spoken to in the past and refused help, but the officers will keep trying.
Helen runs Hertfordshire Police’s Gangs and Schools Team, which helps children exploited by organised crime groups. It targets youngsters involved in “county lines, gang affiliation and knife crime”. To date, it has received around 650 referrals.
“Roughly 25 per cent are deeply entrenched in county lines,” says Sgt Croughton. Many others are “on the periphery”.
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Two-thirds of children who accept the team’s help do not reoffend. But as fast as they can turn those around, more are coming through the door. Even throughout the pandemic, there have been “a steady stream of referrals”.
The unit was created in January 2019, as county lines fuelled sharp increases in drug and knife crime. The team has doubled in size since then to cope with demand.
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Last year, Hertfordshire Council reported that 28 London gangs were known to be operating in the county, as well as gangs from Essex and Luton.
Data obtained by the Herts Ad shows drug and knife incidents have continued to rise amid the pandemic.
Ambulance call-outs for drug overdoses rose by 34pc in two years, from 1,881 in 2017 to 2,473 in 2019. Calls to stabbings rose by 18pc.
The West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs hospitals in Watford, St Albans and Hemel Hempstead, saw drug-related A&E visits rise by 289pc in two years, from 239 in 2017 to 930 in 2019.
The East and North Hertfordshire NHS trust, which runs Lister Hospital, saw drug-related A&E visits increase five-fold in two years, from seven cases in 2017 to 45 in 2019. Between January and August this year figures rose again, by another 67pc.
A&E patients with knife wounds more than doubled from 38 in 2017 to 80 in 2019. Between January and August 2020, cases were up another 39pc – 64 stabbings in eight months.
A fifth of the victims were children.
County lines gangs prey on children, grooming them to commit crimes because they are less likely to arouse suspicion than adults.
A “very large percentage” of the children Sgt Croughton’s team deals with are being exploited by older offenders.
“The grooming is no different from child sexual exploitation,” she says. “The kids that we work with are actually very vulnerable... They won’t understand that they’re being exploited. The people that exploit them are very clever. They’re very good at what they do. They really make these children feel that they’re loved and cared for and when we try to tell them otherwise, they don’t want to hear it – understandably.”
“It’s not easy to learn that the people who you think are your friends aren’t your friends,” says PC Julie Moir. “We do get quite a lot of hostility at the beginning from some young people.”
There is no magic solution to winning the kids over, they say – just investing time to visit and talk to them regularly. The officers find out what interests the children arrange constructive activities like sports, art, music and education, where they can make genuine friends.
One boy, given a court order after a stabbing, was enrolled in a music class and encouraged to take up football and running. His change in behaviour was so great that his order was ended early.
But, says Sgt Croughton, Covid-19 has made the team’s work “very challenging”.
“Obviously, at the moment, we’re not allowed to do any home visits,” she explains. “We tried exploring online interactions with young people – but we just found it not to be very successful at all.
“In terms of the diversionary projects we are able to offer, usually we’ve got numerous things going on that we can feed them into almost immediately... But that, in the main, has all had to stop. All we can offer at the moment is online provision and we do find it’s challenging to get these young people to engage.
“So it’s had a very detrimental impact, unfortunately, on the work that we do. You need to get that human engagement.”
*Sgt Croughton’s team can be reached by dialling 101.
Aspire, which works with children at risk of gang involvement, can be reached at 07736 927741.