LOST GENERATION: DCI Neil Smith has investigated 'county lines' more than two years
BRITAIN risks losing a generation of youngsters to a life of crime and drugs a senior detective involved in investigating the menace of county lines dealing has warned.
DCI Neil Smith of Gloucestershire Police, who has helped oversee the arrests of more than 200 people involved in flooding the county with crack cocaine and heroin, said youths involved in the dealing were often more scared of their gang leaders than the criminal justice system.
The small force has seen 70 drug dealers and gangsters jailed for a total of 211 years in 24 months.
County lines is a drug dealing "business model" that sees vulnerable youngsters sent by city gangs to ply class A drugs in towns across the country using dedicated mobile phone numbers.
It is reaching epidemic proportions with children as young as 12 being exploited and arrested on suspicion of dealing.
In April the Sunday Express revealed county lines dealing was spreading across the Home Counties and in June it reported the National Crime Agency (NCA) saying there were around 1,000 of the mobile phone hotlines in use with 200 police investigations underway - the latest estimate from the agency is 1,500.
Mr Smith said his force became aware of the sickening practice in 2016 when there were two murders linked to county lines activity.
MURDERED: Paul Pass (top) and Camran Green were both killed in 2016 in 'county lines' linked attacks
He now wants to focus on catching those responsible for exploiting the children, rather than arresting the young vulnerable people often groomed into doing it through the promise of cash and designer goods and then fear from threats and serious violence when things go wrong.
The average age of drug mules being sent to deal in the shires is 16 and the gang leaders are aged just in their mid to late 20s.
Mr Smith said: "In some cases you have 15 and 16-year-old kids being paid £400 to £500 a week to deal drugs.
"We are talking about young people involved in this criminal activity. It is really sad we have a whole generations or two generations who think this life of crime, drugs, violence and prosecution is OK and worth the risk of being caught up in it.
"It is fair to say some are not phased when we arrest them because they have been through custody before and in some cases they will be more concerned about the debt they know owe to the gangs for losing the drugs."
But Mr Smith is clear that children aged 17 and under involved in the crime are being exploited even if they appear to be complicit in what they are doing.
Of the around 200 arrests in the last two years, 53 were children, with around 80 per cent of them having previous contact with socials services, educational welfare or being reported as missing.
RAID: Gloucestershire police prepare to mount drug busts on suspected 'county lines' dealers
Following their arrest the children are referred on to social service sand charities for support so they can hopefully break free from the cycle of crime.
However, some have ended up being arrested again according to Mr Smith.
Due to Gloucestershire having the M5 corridor run through it, the county has seen gangs based in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and London sending young drug runners there.
Mr Smith said: "They know the children to target. Those hanging about in towns who are not in school
Mr Smith wants to focus on what he calls "upstreaming" by catching the city-based gang leaders abusing the children like Stefan Miller, 29, from London, who was jailed for six years in March for sending drug runners into Gloucestershire.
He said: "These people are extremely cowardly, by sending in children to take the risks and exposing them to danger, they think they will get away with it.
BUSTED: 'County lines' sim cards (above) found at London home of Stefan Miller (below)
"But, I like nothing more than upstreaming when we put through doors in the cities where these drugs are coming from. It is one thing getting a conviction for drug dealing, but when you get one for child abuse, which this is, that is another story."
The force is currently trying to charge two senior gang members with human trafficking as well as drug supply offences using modern-day slavery legislation.
He said: "This is currently with the CPS, but I am hopeful."
His comments came as the Home Office this month launched a new £3.6m County Lines
RAID: Bundles of cash (above) and drugs (below) found in Miller's home
National Coordination Centre to try to build a national picture of the problem, not just from a police perspective, but including social services and charity data.
The NCA has been taking police county lines date for months, but
A Home Office spokesman said: "A new multiagency 38-strong team of experts from the NCA, police and regional organised crime units will work together to develop the national intelligence picture of the complexity and scale of the threat, prioritise action against the most serious offenders, and engage with partners across government, including in the health, welfare and education spheres, to tackle the wider issues."