How Northamptonshire Police locked up 'untouchable' County Line drug bosses in our town

Northampton in 2019 saw drug dealing out in the open in our town. Now, it has been "driven into the shadows"

Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 1:05 pm
Updated Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 3:33 pm
Yesterday unveiled the results of Operation Poetry - a nine-month-long crackdown on County Line gangs in Northampton.

DCI Adam Pendlebury paints a grim picture of drug dealing in Northampton before Op Poetry began.

"It was so overt. It was like there wasn't any fear of repercussions," he says.

"If you spoke to the community in 2018 or 2019, drug deals were happening in front of shops, on the Market Square, down back alleys, out in the open where it could all be seen."

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DCI Adam Pendlebury says Op Poetry has driven drug dealing in the town "back into the shadows".

In his words, he believes the community were no longer confident Northamptonshire Police had a grip on the town.

After this week's announcement, he hopes they have proven otherwise.

Yesterday, Northamptonshire Police unveiled the results of their work: 72 convictions, 221 years of jail time and over £1.3m of drugs taken off the streets.

This was the payoff of Operation Poetry - a nine-month coordinated undercover attack in 2019 to stamp out the County Lines gang problem in Northampton.

Drug bosses in cities enjoyed luxury items and lavish lifestyles off of the exploitation of Northampton.

And before they started, Northampton had a big problem.

"What triggered this operation was that we carried out warrants against drug gangs and ended up finding missing children and vulnerable adults who were not from Northampton," said the Detective Chief Inspector.

"We had to ask, 'where are they from and who are they working with?' It indicated we had a large gap in our knowledge around County Lines in Northampton."

The force launched the operation with a team of officers to investigate what was happening in the town.

The operation blew the lid off of at least 25 County Line gangs operating in Northampton town centre alone.

They set out to tackle the five County Line gangs they knew of in the square mile of Northampton town centre.

They found 25. And business was booming.

"As part of the operation we identified a drug runner, someone who sets up and resupplies deals," said DCI Pendlebury.

"We watched their property for about four hours, to get an idea of the scale of the problem.

The gangs used violence and exploitation to establish their grip on Northampton's drug market.

"They were in-out, in-out, in-out. Constantly. That one line was probably looking at an average turnover of £500,000 to £750,000 in a year. That's one line."

So why was Northampton so infested? DCI Pendlebury believes a big factor is that our county is just convenient for them.

County Lines are operated by gangs who spread out from major cities to sell drugs in rural or smaller areas on dedicated mobile phone numbers, or 'Lines'. Their footsoldiers often exploit teenagers, vulnerable adults and their own customers to run and sell the products, allowing the leaders to separate themselves from the dealing while scooping up the profits in the city.

"On one occasion we had one line that was set up in a single day," said DCI Pendlebury.

"The two involved got off at the train station to get a feel for the town and began selling the same day.

"They later went on to become embedded and began what we call 'cuckooing' [exploiting a vulnerable person and running drugs from their property].

Northamptonshire secured 75 convictions against gangs members and drug dealers in our town.

"They probably didn't target Northampton. They came to look at the town and saw a vulnerability they could exploit."

The danger posed by so many gangs doing business in the space of just one square mile is also stark. Along with rampant drug dealing hurting vulnerable people, the risk of violence was constant. None of the gangs were connected. If - and when - they trod on each others' toes and sold on each others' turfs, confrontations broke out easily.

On at least one occasion, Northamptonshire's officers were aware of stabbings as a result of gangs meeting and fighting to resolve disputes.

Meanwhile, the risk to vulnerable teenagers and adults was high.

DCI Pendlebury said: "It wasn't as significant as we expected it to be - but that's not to say that it wasn't an issue.

"We came across a lot of children under 18 or 16 who were working for the County Lines. There was a lot of exploitation and they did not know the extent of their criminality.

"They were given money, free drugs, nice trainers, nice clothing. And it was the lifestyle they only knew.

"I think a lot of them come from difficult backgrounds and the gangs offer a degree of inclusion, almost like a family feel. And that was enticing for them. It was something that drew them in."

Operation Poetry ran for nine months beginning in 2019. Through a coordinated, undercover effort, officers were able to infiltrate not just the gangs but trace their bosses back to the city, where they were living lives of luxury off of the exploitation of Northampton and its residents.

Dozens of warrants were carried out 125 arrests in the space of two weeks in a bid to nail down the gangs responsible.

Now, at the end of over two years of criminal trials, Northamptonshire Police say Op poetry has dismantled over two dozen lines in the town. 72 convictions were secured and the players involved put away for a total of 221 years.

But while these lines have been destroyed, DCI Pendlebury warns the problem is not solved yet.

He said: "Frustratingly whenever these gaps in the market are created more drug dealers move in to fill the void.

"We began this operation to tackle the problem and take back control of the town, so residents can walk through Northampton without seeing that criminality.

"I think we did go through a dark period where there were a lot of violence and a lot of stabbings, and unfortunately a number of those became homicide investigations.

"But we are not targeting the right people and the right problems to drive this activity back into the shadows. I hope the community will see this success and have confidence we are tackling the problem."