Many of the isle’s street drug dealers are children who have been targeted by criminals higher up the chain, police revealed at a meeting with Ramsgate business owners.
The youngsters are often vulnerable and may have their own addiction problems, they added.
The information came in response to complaints from town business owners about open street dealing, often behind and in front of the town’s police station, or in the main shopping areas.
Traders at the meeting said deals in broad daylight were impacting on business and pushing people away from the town.
But Sergeant Neil Fuller said police needed to gather intelligence so those ‘pulling the strings’ could be brought to justice.
‘Higher up the food chain’
He said: “We do not have the resources to target every single street deal and that is not going to solve the problem. We need to target those in charge.
“A lot of the street dealers are children and a lot of them are vulnerable. The best way to deal with that is to engage and avert them from that path. We have to proactively work to get to those higher up the food chain in terms of the drug market.”
Thanet’s former chief inspector Lara Connor, who has since taken on a new role, said police do prosecute youngsters but only as one of a number of options.
She said: “We carry out safe and well visits, use education and there are enforcement options. It is part of a bigger picture. Every single drug deal taking place won’t be subject to police action but it will be subject to intelligence and building up that bigger picture.”
Plain clothes officers are used alongside those in uniform to target the dealers and those who have recruited them. There were also four stop and searches for drugs in Ramsgate town this Summer and 18 ‘vulnerable young person’ visits, Swabbing for drugs has taken place in a licensed premise, dispersal powers have been used in the town and hot spot areas have been included in regular patrols.
Youngsters are often targeted as part of County Lines drug operations – – criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line” – adapting their business model to snare local children and teens as mules in a bid to operate under the radar and reduce costs.
An award of £527,573 was given to Kent Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), Matthew Scott, to fund a major project tackling the root causes of serious violence among children and young people -including drugs – in June. The project involves different schemes tackling gangs, county lines and exploitation in Kent. Among those already working in Thanet is the St Giles Trust which, since September 2017, has been helping east Kent youngsters exit ‘gang’ operations.
The cash award was made by the Home Office.
Chief Inspector Connor said: ‘We will actively pursue and look to prosecute anyone involved in drug activity in Thanet, regardless of whether they are adults or under 18.
“There are various outcomes following an arrest, including conviction and jail. In some cases however there are better ways to tackle the problem such as education and intervention.
“‘We can use restorative justice, particularly with young people when they are found to be vulnerable. It is only an option when the victim agrees to its use and it gives offenders the chance to take responsibility for their actions and with the right support change their ways.
“It’s important we recognise that young people are at risk of being exploited, not just in Thanet but all over our county, which is why we don’t stop there.
“Officers work tirelessly to disrupt and dismantle criminal activity linked to county line drug-dealing at the top level, which can sometimes be the root cause of the problem. As such we will continue to investigate and identify those responsible for bringing drugs into our county and ensure all steps are taken to put a stop to it.
“We have good systems in place to safeguard those most vulnerable and work with our partner agencies regularly on education and intervention.”
Ch Insp Connor also revealed Thanet has received government funding to extend dedicated work tackling violent crime. The project ran through the summer and has now been extended until November to work in Ramsgate and Margate.
There is also a £9,000 pot for work by the Charlton Athletic Trust, co-ordinating with police, through the Thanet Mentoring Programme. This supports, guides and challenges young people aged 12 to 24 in Thanet who are either at risk of becoming involved in crime or already in the criminal justice system.
District councillor and Charlton Athletic Trust worker Becky Wing (pictured above) is working on the scheme.
The meeting was organised by district and county councillor Karen Constantine. She said: “We have worked with the police, calling on them for a strategic additional presence on the streets to help to counter anti social behaviour. Over the years we have witnessed changing patterns. We know that young people will always gather together and that they don’t always understand that hanging out as a large group is both noisy and sometimes intimidating to others.
“We are aware that we have drink and drug addicts on our streets. Recent reports of drug dealing out in the open are alarming. No one wants to see this. I fully support the police in their efforts to tackle this, often in plain clothes and undercover.
“We appreciate the police are trying to stop vulnerable youngsters being pulled into County Lines drug dealing gangs. The real problem, however, is those who control this activity.
“What traders want and need is greater police visibility so this isn’t happening openly on our streets. This is the sort of activity that will put people off visiting and shopping in Ramsgate and could lead to the closure of businesses. We also need to tackle this problem at root cause, boosting police numbers and ensuring the restoration of youth services for our young people.
“There aren’t any simple, short term solutions, but we need to boost our ‘public sector’. We have to employ more police and youth workers, and tackle substance misuse. We also need to kick start a programme of house building to end the misery of homelessness. All of these solutions could create valuable jobs in our local economy and bring prosperity which in turn can be spent in our locality.”
National data from the NCA
2,000 County Lines deal line numbers and 1,000 branded County Lines
Heroin and crack cocaine most commonly supplied through the lines
Typical age of ‘groomed’ youngsters is 15-17 but examples of children as young as 11 being recruited
Vulnerable adults also targeted, especially with property ‘cuckooing’
Threats of kidnap, violence and sexual abuse made against those trying to exit County Lines