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Stortford's police chief issues warning over gangs targeting town's youth for drug and sex crimes

Grooming of Bishop's Stortford's young and most vulnerable people by London drug gangs is the biggest law and order problem facing the town, according to its top cop.

Chief Inspector Stuart Orton was outlining his priorities to the town council for the first time since taking charge of the East Herts Community Safety Partnership (CSP) in August.

The former Metropolitan Police officer, who has more than 25 years' experience, has been part of specialist teams investigating robbery, drugs and sexual offences.

He told councillors that county lines – the term for city gangs and organised crime networks exploiting children to sell drugs – was the most pressing problem for his team to tackle.

The gangs often set up a base in a rural area for a short time, taking over the home of a vulnerable person – known as 'cuckooing'. Chief Insp Orton said that two cases had been detected in Stortford this year: at an almshouse in South Road and a flat at Tanners Wharf in London Road.

Criminals from east London are targetting the town and he said: "We have a county lines problem but we cannot quantify what it is." As a result, he is working with the community – particularly schools – to gather "actionable intelligence".

As well as grooming youngsters to carry drugs, girls are the victims of sexual exploitation by the gangs, he said.

Chief Insp Orton highlighted the need to remain vigilant about the impact of the night-time economy – pubs, bars and clubs – on crime and anti-social behaviour in the town, but said that any issues in Stortford paled by comparison with those in Hertford.

He noted Stortford was now a "hot spot" for burglaries between 4pm and 9pm, with thieves tasking advantage of early nightfall to strike. He told the council his officers were currently working on a promising forensic lead.

The town's location on the border with Essex, close to the M11, was also an issue, with perpetrators crossing the county boundary to offend.

Chief Insp Orton has set up a meeting with St Michael's Mead residents after a number of owners of luxury cars were targeted by criminals who gain access to keyless vehicles like BMWs, Range Rovers and Mercedes by using a scanner. Officers are handing out pouches to protect fobs as part of a clampdown.

As part of his plans to prioritise public engagement by his team, the police chief is looking at using volunteers to collect and view CCTV as part of investigations because his police community support officers are spending too much time on the task and he wants to maximise their contribution to crime prevention.

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