County lines inspection

Part of: Large-scale policing Protecting people from violence and abuse


County lines’ is a term used to describe crimes involving gangs and organised criminal networks moving illegal drugs around the UK. Typically, this will involve moving drugs out from large cities and urban areas to sell in rural communities.

Gangs and networks involved in county lines are likely to target and exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store drugs and money involved in these deals. Often gangs use coercion, intimidation and violence (including sexual violence) to force these vulnerable people to carry out criminal acts.

The nature of these crimes present two main challenges for policing:

  • understanding the nature and extent of exploitation and coercion within these networks, ensuring that vulnerable victims get the help they need rather than being treated as criminals; and
  • understanding the county lines networks, which typically don’t align with police force boundaries, ensuring the right collaborations are in place to prevent vulnerable people being drawn into crime, bring perpetrators to justice, and protect the public.

As a result of the increase in of these types of crime, the Home Office commissioned HMICFRS to inspect police forces’ understanding of, and approach to, county lines.

Particular focus was to be given to whether the vulnerability and exploitation of individuals is understood and prioritised by the police.

Inspection approach

The inspection consisted of a data and document review, and fieldwork.

Data and document review

Before starting fieldwork, HMICFRS reviewed documents and data provided by forces and the Home Office.

We also reviewed findings from the first two tranches of our annual police efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy inspections.

These insights allowed us to shape our approach and provided context to findings from fieldwork.


Fieldwork was carried out in ten Home Office-funded police forces across England and Wales, chosen to be representative of typical county lines activity, and the British Transport Police.

Partner agencies, such as community groups and criminal justice agencies play a pivotal role in understanding and tackling county lines crimes. Although they were not subject to HMICFRS’s inspection, their views were sought and taken into consideration during a discussion forum, as part of the fieldwork process.

Partner agencies consulted were:

  • The National County Lines Co-ordination Centre
  • The National Crime Agency
  • Three Regional Organised Crime Units
  • The College of Policingcounty lines lead
  • The Crown Prosecution Service – county lines lead
  • The Children’s Minister
  • NPCC Serious Violence lead
  • Serious and Organised Crime reference group
  • Police National Database


Both sides of the coin: An inspection of how the police and National Crime Agency consider vulnerable people who are both victims and offenders in ‘county lines’ drug offending – published January 2020