County Lines


Helen Hanley, PNLD Legal Adviser, provides an overview of ‘County Lines’ as presented by DCI Carl Galvin at our Criminal Law Conference on Thursday 4th October 2018.

At this year’s conference, DCI Galvin provided a fluent and informative presentation on ‘County Lines’.  He spoke of his love / hate relationship with the term ‘County Lines’ and went on to explain that whilst he is really passionate about what he does, how he enjoys safeguarding vulnerable people, pursuing, capturing and convicting offenders; at the same time, he finds it frustrating how politicians and the media have politicised this area and feels that all effort should be focused on dealing with the issue of vulnerability rather than the label. 

He explained what the term ‘County Lines’ means, and gave meanings for other terms used within this field. Citing relevant and applicable legislation, DCI Galvin provided detail on the national and regional threat picture, described how the problem of ‘County Lines’ is being tackled and what challenges the police face. 

He ended his presentation by asking the audience to reflect on his question “Have we not learned the lessons from CSE?” 

In summary:

What is meant by the term ‘County Lines’?

Prior to March of this year, three different definitions were put forward for ‘County Lines’ by different organisations – the NSPCC, NCA and the Home Office.  This caused a problem as forces were using these three different definitions to “screen out” rather than “screen in” on the problem. For example, forces were only looking at Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) defined by the Home Office on a strict criteria.  Therefore when a force was asked for organised crime data for those groups engaged in county line activity, forces were making nil returns when in fact what they did have, was urban gangs, street gangs or other groups that weren’t defined.  This meant that forces couldn’t get a foothold of the national problem and so were unable to come up with a national strategy to combat it.

In March/April however of this year, a crucial new definition of ‘County Lines’ was formulated. 

County Lines is a term used to describe gangs or organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs in to one or more importing areas (within the UK), using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”.  They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move (and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

3 questions can be asked to determine a ‘County Line’ –

1. Have we got a dedicated deal line?
2. Does it move from one import area to an export area?
3. Does it have exploitation, violence and weapons (EVW)? 

If answer to these is yes, then it is a ‘County Line’.  The key elements of a County Line are drug activity, branded deal line, geography and vulnerability. 


import/export/internal/external lines
DCI Galvin provided examples of the different types of County Lines using a hypothetical example of a branded drugs line called ‘The Max line’ – it was explained how Intelligence surrounding this branded line would determine a) whether it was in fact a County Line and b) what type of County Line it was - import/export/internal/external line. Understanding this is crucial to then formulating the appropriate response.

DCI Galvin went on to explain that when we actually identify a County Line – we have quite in depth full intelligence – we know where it exports from, imports to, level of EWV, gang involved/OCG/criminal network, etc.  This is good as it enables us to form a strategy, however we must not lose sight of the ‘Branded Lines’ where there are gaps in intelligence.  Branded Lines are all potential County Lines.  Within West Yorkshire there is focus on these to fill the intelligence gaps.

Regional Picture

County Lines in the Yorkshire region are in the majority internal regionally but do cut across the 4 regional force boundaries.  The region does also have however have external influences – exporting to Brighton on the South coast – this happens maybe because of familial associations in prison establishments, profit to be made, people travelling those distances and also importing from the North West, London and the Midlands (amongst others).

Within West Yorkshire there are currently 9 OCG/20UCG identified as County Lines as per definition. There are 156 branded lines.  The problem is that these don’t get reported or identified as County Lines, yet this is where the threat, risk and vulnerability lies.  The aim is to understand these and try and increase intelligence overtly, covertly and through partners to find out where vulnerability lies. 

National Picture

Data is being collated from the newly formed National Crime Agency County Lines coordination centre. The 3 main areas for county line activity are Blackpool, Telford and York. There are currently around 800 lines nationally.

Tackling the problem

At the NCA County Line Coordination Centre based in Birmingham, an office of people are assigned to do analytical work, feed data in, crunch the data to identify links nationally with other forces/regions and then coordinate activity into different tiers:

Lower tier - local dealers etc./ transportation networks to be owned and controlled by police force areas collaborating with partners to deal with it.

Middle tier – organised networks, engaged in movement of people for sexual exploitation of people, money laundering – ROCU network to look at these – there are 10 county line coordinators in each ROCU to share best practice across the country to ensure consistency between County Line dedicated analysts.

Top tier - OCG, importing, wholesale distribution to be looked at by NCA.

Applicable/relevant legislation

CPS have produced typology around County Line activity – detailing offences and case law.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 provides for Drug Dealing Telecommunication Restriction Orders which enables dealer lines to be targeted by means of its identifier in terms of telephone number and also in terms of user base and what name of line. Modern Slavery Act legislation also provides other additional powers to safeguard vulnerable people and target offenders.


1. Increased levels of scrutiny of police officers. There is a lot of ministerial scrutiny at the moment.  The area not specifically defined in statute books – but the police are going to be held account for a response.  Forces are subject to HMIC thematic inspection to respond to County Lines.

2. Media portrayal of ‘County Lines’. The media have portrayed the issue as being just about ‘County Lines’ and drugs activity in more rural, less urban hub locations. Many in the Police service think that the response should be about child criminal exploitation that absolutely involves drug activity but also includes vulnerable people being used in organised shop theft, moving stolen vehicles, organised robbery, sexual exploitation and people being moved and trafficked for other types of crime. (Remember the young child being used as the burglars look out). 

3. Gangs and groups use of the media.  Gangs and groups use the media to interact and recruit e.g drill music, trap music, rap videos.  These however can be used to provide intelligence on gangs – where, who, tactics, commodities, “online stop and search”.

4. Territory disputes in importing areas. Violence is making it hard to investigate. The capacity and capability of smaller forces is tested by the increased levels of violent offending by importing gangs. We might often get CCTV images, intelligence for vehicles etc. but when it is a Leeds offender operating in Brighton, the local forces haven’t got officers who can identify the offenders, so many traditional investigative methods are frustrated.

5. Technology. The gangs are very agile in their ability to utilise new and emerging technologies. A necessary evil of the court system is that the prosecution, in providing evidence to substantiate a successful prosecution, disclose methods and tactics.  This then educates offenders to change their habits, move away from methods they know the police can detect and use more sophisticated communication methods such as whatsapp, facebook messenger which are end-to-end encrypted.  It is difficult to gather evidence and intelligence from these. 

6. Ownership and connectivity. Who should lead on a response?  Every County Line is different, it will utilise different methodology, transport etc.  The key is a full intelligence picture, then identify where there is opportunity for intervention - that’s where the focus should be.  Opportunity for intervention can include safeguarding, pursuing offenders and target activity there.  On the fringes longer term strategies around early intervention and diversion for those on the edges should be undertaken as routine.

7. Educating front line staff. Education is needed for front line staff and partners operating on the front line in schools, NHS etc. about what vulnerability looks like in County Line and other types of child exploitation crime. This should encourage a regime of information sharing and collaboration in our response.

Download the article (PDF 841KB)

Download Carl's PowerPoint presentation (PDF 320KB)

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Thursday 17th October 2019