The Home Office’s approach to tackling county lines drug operations is based on unproven assumptions and “racialised tropes” that criminalise Black boys and young men, according to new research.
The study also found that the policing strategy towards county lines stigmatised Black youngsters in a similar way to how the Metropolitan police’s discredited gang violence matrix database was found to be discriminatory.
The findings, published by thinktank the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), says the government’s claim that county lines is the “most violent and exploitative” drugs distribution model, requiring a multi-agency approach, is unproven. “There is a dearth of evidence to support the contention of an increase in the use and supply of [Class A] drugs as a result of ‘county lines’,” said the IRR study.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drugs charity Release, said the study highlighted growing concerns about the strategy: “The county lines narrative has been used by government and police as a contrived new threat that falsely and cruelly legitimises the targeting of racialised communities, especially of young Black children and men.”
The IRR tried to identify the ethnicity of people considered “at risk” of involvement in county lines by the Met, but said its freedom of information request had not been answered. However, available data indicates that, by 2020, of 3,290 people “having a link or suspected link” to county lines in London, 83% belonged to an ethnic minority.
The research, published this week in the journal Race & Class, adds that young Black people are up to six times more likely than any other ethnicity to be included in county lines safeguarding classifications. A national child safeguarding review panel also identified a concerning “over-representation” of Black boys in those considered at risk from county lines.
The IRR’s director, Liz Fekete, said the research should serve as a “wake-up call” to councils and safeguarding officials about the perils of being drawn into racial profiling. She urged them to urgently review procedures and databases. “We need to ensure that they are not complicit in a new form of criminalisation of Black and minority ethnic children, particularly those excluded from school, and/or in care,” she said.
Lauren Wroe, one of the study’s authors, said: “While we don’t see enough action from government on child poverty – itself partly the result of austerity politics – we have witnessed rampant campaigns against so-called grooming gangs, child traffickers and now county lines gangs.”
Wroe, assistant professor in the sociology department at Durham University, added: “The government throws these issues into the spotlight in an attempt to ramp up support for policies that are tough on crime and tough on immigration, while it fails to address the entrenched inequalities it has created over the last decade.”
The Home Office began outlining attempts to tackle county lines in 2017, and a detailed programme unveiled four years ago has led to more than 14,800 arrests and another 7,200 individuals being referred by police to safeguarding initiatives.
Government officials use county lines as a term to describe “gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK”.
However, the IRR report says the drugs model entered the policy agenda as a culmination of local “problem profiling” carried out under the now defunct Ending Gangs and Youth Violence (EGYV) programme and other former anti-gangs policies.
They warn its county lines strategy risks repeating some of the failings of the Met’s matrix database, which is being overhauled after the force admitted its operation was unlawful.
The report, by three leading experts in criminal justice and social policy, says that questions need to be asked over the adoption of the relatively “new crime label” of county lines, the multi-agency policing of the issue and subsequent prosecution of young men under the Modern Slavery Act.
“At the extreme end, this can culminate in a new racialised trope of young black men as ‘the new slave masters of today’,” states their report.
It also found that safeguarding procedures are not protecting young people in a way they were meant to. “Safeguarding professionals often deploy arbitrary distinctions between victim and offender, gang member and associate,” the report says.
Angélique Vassell, founder of WalkwithMeUK, a London-based group working with families of colour whose children have been exploited, said: “The overarching heartache for many families that we support is that they want to be protected as opposed to being neglected and criminalised.”
Eastwood said: “This groundbreaking and excellent research adds to the evidence that the drug war is a racist endeavour that harms communities and fails to protect society as a whole.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for county lines, Commander Paul Brogden, told the Observer: “County lines drug dealing destroys lives and we are committed to tackling the supply of illegal drugs, and the exploitation and violence that is frequently associated with it.
“County Lines remains a top priority for policing, and drug gangs across the UK were targeted recently in our latest national police operation, the county lines intensification week.
“The figures from this intensification week demonstrate our work to protect communities from harm, with 710 individuals safeguarded, including 58 children.
“We work closely with key partners, such as Catch22 and Rescue and Response, to help protect young people from county lines across our taskforce model.
“In the last 18 months, one such taskforce team, working at the Metropolitan police, has rescued 52 children from county lines, 63% of whom were Black children.”
Brogden added: “They also work hard to stop the exploitation of those children, and since the taskforce’s inception in 2019, 95 individuals have been charged with modern slavery offences.”
The Home Office said: “County lines is a major cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, child criminal exploitation, modern slavery and missing persons, which is why a multi-agency response is needed. The government is delivering a series of actions as part of the Inclusive Britain strategy to improve accountability and transparency across policing, and build trust between police and the communities they serve.”