Essex: Combating cuckooing
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Vulnerable people in Essex are being targeted by County Lines drug gangs who take over their homes and use them as bases for drug dealing.
The tactic, known as cuckooing, sees the gang manipulate people with drug and alcohol addictions, financial problems and learning difficulties to gain access to their properties.
The groups have also been known to target the elderly and young mothers, often befriending their victims by offering free gifts, protection or drugs.
However, this friendship comes at a price as gang members will then move into the victim’s home and turn it into a hive of criminal activity.
Victims find themselves trapped, threatened by the gang, and unable to see a way out. In some cases, they have abandoned their homes entirely and ended up living on the streets.
Detective Chief Inspector Jim White is part of the Essex Violence and Vulnerability Unit (VVU), a multi-agency team that deals with gangs, County Lines, knife crime and violence.
Essex VVU focus on “prevention, intervention, diversion and education” using community-based youth workers as well as projects in prisons. In the past year, they have also trained more than 450 police and partner agency employees to help recognise the signs of cuckooing.
“Cuckooing is part of the drug dealers’ business model, and it’s more prevalent now because of Covid,” said DCI White.
“The gangs would use Airbnb, guest houses or hotels to set up but now they’ve been forced to use individual's houses.
“When we find dealers on the streets from London, they’ve all got somewhere they’ll go back to. COVID has made travelling on the train more risky for them, so they prefer to find a base to operate from.”
So what are the signs that cuckooing is taking place?
“Every case is slightly different, but we’d look for people who you wouldn’t expect to see at the premises,” said DCI White.
“Are there more people staying there than there should be? Is the property a mess? Is the owner guarded and fearful when talking? Are they not keeping appointments or letting other people into their house?
“You might go to an old person’s house and see trainers, Coke cans and McDonald’s wrappers. There might also be signs of drug use, signs of money and phones. Often, the gang members are 15 or 16-year-olds but it’s the people behind them that are the problem if you don’t let them stay – it’s the implied threat.
“People with learning difficulties have come to us and struggle to express what is happening but they’re scared, don’t want to go back to their house and are living on the beach because their house has been taken over by drug dealers.”
Next month, Essex VVU will launch Operation Trespass. This will see 50,000 leaflets and posters go out to community partners, police stations and to victims of cuckooing and their neighbours. The material will describe the signs of cuckooing and tell people who to go to for help.
DCI White is optimistic that publicising the issue and engaging the public will lead to positive results.
“I know of numerous cases of people have been trapped in a situation they cannot get themselves out of, merely by allowing someone into their homes.
“What seemed like a good idea at the time has led to months, sometimes years of torture for them. Their lives have been completely taken over by the County Lines gang, which in some cases has made them suicidal, it’s really tragic.
“But if we can increase reporting and increase awareness, we can make it really difficult for these exploiters to get a foothold in our communities.”
You can find more information about cuckooing and how to spot the signs on our information and advice pages.