Revealed: Dealers ‘grooming’ children in Portsmouth as police step up drugs fight

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SENIOR police leading the fight against organised drug-dealing gangs have revealed they are monitoring nearly 20 networks in the area.

At a briefing in Portsmouth, Hampshire police’s tactical lead for drug-related harm, Chief Inspector Jim Pegler, said the supply of crack cocaine and heroin into the city could not be restricted – but abuse of vulnerable people by the gangs must be stopped.

Chief Inspector Jim Pegler

Chief Inspector Jim Pegler

He said police were tackling dealers who traffic class A drugs from larger cities – including London, Manchester and Liverpool – to runners who peddle them in the city.

Under the ‘county lines’ model, dealers operate a mobile phone remotely, sending texts to known addicts.

Gangs force people – including children as young as 14 – to become street dealers and runners in the city.

Giving a snapshot of recent monitoring, Ch Insp Pegler revealed 12 such networks were known in the city, with four in Havant, and one each in Gosport and Fareham.

He said: ‘You should have confidence that we are tackling those networks.

‘For the past six months in the Eastern area we’ve had the drug-related harm team with a sergeant and eight PCs just focusing on drugs.

‘They’ve made 116 arrests and seized 350 mobile phones.’

More than £280,000 of drugs and £40,000 in cash has been seized by the team.

At an Operation Fortress briefing, it was revealed that:

n The city’s drug team will continue after a six-month pilot started in January, with another one in Southampton.

n About 140 class A drug lines, run by about 50 networks, have been running in Hampshire for six months.

n Networks are scored on how dangerous they are – including if they are known to use weapons – and dealt with in order of highest risk.

n A ‘soft relaunch’ for the force’s drug-related harm programme, Operation Fortress, will focus on stopping ‘grooming’ of children.

Speaking to an audience including youth intervention workers, recovery workers and teachers, Ch Insp Pegler said: ‘We’re seeing local kids targeted as runners, they’re being coerced into running drugs and that’s taking them into a world of crime and pain.

‘They lose their drugs, they get beaten up and kidnapped.

‘We see young girls with them being forced into that life and put at risk.’

Ch Insp Pegler added: ‘We’re not really going to restrict the supply in our cities, it’s just not realistic.

‘It’s really that the whole point of our policy is to identify what the risks are and get on top of those. I don’t think we’re going to control the supply in a way that’s going to make any noticeable effect to the user on the street.’

Delegates at the summit, held at the University of Portsmouth’s Langstone campus, in Milton, were being urged to help stop any exploitation.

It comes as police are bidding to protect children from sex abuse and violence linked to organised criminal gangs dealing drugs.

‘The levels of violence are much higher for those young people, those 15, 16, 17-year-olds carrying drugs and couriering them,’ Ch Insp Pegler said.

‘The risk of robbery and violence is very high. If you’re staying in (bigger cities) with a phone, the risk is pretty low.

‘To the organised criminals these are expendable, easily-replaced foot soldiers.’

He added: ‘In any other world we would call this grooming and that’s what it is. We’re seeing young kids offered £200 to run drugs – that’s grooming.’

He also confirmed in Portsmouth there was a ‘strong correlation’ between drug users and victims of stabbings and knife crime.

The briefing heard youngsters and vulnerable adults are being cuckooed – where dealers occupy a person’s home and subject them to violence – while others are forced to work to repay debts. Some have even been kidnapped.

Girls have also been trafficked out of the city and sexually abused in crimes linked to drug-dealing.

‘This is all happening in our cities,’ he said.