Police in Bexley are employing tactics used on football hooligans to crack down on a growing number of ‘county line’ drug gangs exploiting young vulnerable people.

County lines are criminal networks using children to funnel narcotics and money from cities to towns and rural areas.

An early warning sign for these gangs are kids going missing from education or care, often having been recruited or blackmailed into running goods across borough boundaries or outside the M25.

Data shows that of the 25 individuals accepted onto Bexley’s serious violence prevention panel between April 2018 and January, five are known to have been involved in county lines.

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Detective Superintendent Andrew Furphy, of the Bexley, Greenwich and Lewisham Borough Command Unit, told a Bexley Council meeting last night the problem was worsening.

He said: “When I first went to Lewisham in 2015 it was a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced before. It was an existing issue that is escalating very quickly.”

Police recently developed a county lines tracker for Bexley, following the rollout in Lewisham.

“The tracker is a pilot we engaged to gauge county lines that has now spread to Bexley as a part of the Borough Command Unit. The tracker doesn’t rely on police data – you need to look at soft intel from partnerships,” the police officer said.

“Being ‘missing’ is always the first thing to always come up, whether that’s missing from education, from care or from home.”

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There are 520 people on the tracker, with a footprint in 22 different counties.

The Met representative said: “Bexley is disproportionately represented, it is low on numbers, but it is increasing – mainly in the north of the borough. There are 23 of them in Bexley.”

Councillors were told last night that police have been using similar punishments inflected on football hooligans to stop drug networks running goods and money outside the M25.

“To stop them going missing, we put the exploiters in prison. We use covert tactics to make sure they go to prison for a long time, reducing the harmful influence of exploiters,” Det Supt Furphy said.

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“Once people do become involved in county lines and it goes down the line to them being convicted, we use criminal behaviour orders.

“We are trying to learn the lessons from football hooliganism, trying to restrict movement. We are achieving a high number of CBOs that stop them going outside the M25 –  that makes them a less attractive prospect.”

Last night’s panel was told that the controversial merger of Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley police to form one borough command unit has improved policing criminal networks.

The shift, which initially concerned local officials, has allowed information to be better shared between councils and cops in the three boroughs.