EARLY morning raids today targeted organised crime gangs suspected of exploiting vulnerable people to deal drugs in Widnes.

More than 340 officers were involved in the high-profile operation with 12 houses targeted in Widnes and 18 homes in Merseyside.

So far officers have arrested 29 people on suspicion of conspiracy to supply class A drugs.

Twenty arrests have been made in Merseyside and nine have been made in Cheshire including five women, 23 men and one 17-year-old boy, all are aged between 17 and 49.

All are currently in custody helping police with their enquiries.

The strike also saw seven crack house closures being carried out in Widnes – a record for the force in one day.

Today’s arrest is the result of a six-month investigation, carried out by Cheshire Police and supported by colleagues from Merseyside Police, Titan and the National Crime Agency, in partnership with Halton Council and partner organisations across Halton.

Runcorn and Widnes World:

An officer outside a property on Bankfield Road in Widnes

It focused on the activities of a number of people suspected of using vulnerable people to sell Class A drugs.

Detective Superintendent Aaron Duggan, head of crime at Cheshire Police, said: “The action taken today comes after months of hard work by a dedicated team of officers to gather evidence and intelligence in connection with a number of organised crime groups suspected of not only supplying drugs within the local community, but exploiting vulnerable people in order to do so.

“Our investigation has been distinctive as it centres on vulnerable adults and children who have been targeted to deliver and deal drugs. We have worked closely with partner agencies to safeguard these vulnerable people.

In these cases, the victims will suffer greatly by taking all the risks and facing the consequences if caught and arrested, while the organised crime groups reap the rewards and believe they can avoid detection.

“We rely heavily on help from the community in identifying and investigating this type of crime and I want to urge residents in local communities to play their part and look out for their neighbours by knowing how to spot if someone is being coerced, exploited and taken advantage of, or their home is being used by people involved in selling illegal drugs.”

Police and crime commissioner for Cheshire David Keane said: “It’s so tragic that we have vulnerable people of all ages becoming victim to these despicable people.

“Life is already hard for them, and to see that they are being targeted by drug dealers who abuse them and make their lives a misery is heartbreaking.

“It makes me angry to think this is going on in our county, so to see the work with our regional forces and local authorities today to stop the rot and free people from their suffering is really reassuring. I will be keeping a close eye on our progress in stamping out the abuse of our vulnerable communities by criminal gangs.”

Specialist officers were used to gain entry to the properties this morning and officers, who are experts in search techniques, are now carrying out detailed inspections of all the addresses.

The warrants were executed following a dawn briefing in which Assistant Chief Constable Nick Bailey acknowledged the work undertaken as part of the operation and reinforced the Constabulary’s commitment to tackling serious and organised crime.

Local officers will remain in the areas affected to provide reassurance to the local community and anyone with any issues or concerns is urged to speak directly to an officer.

Today’s strike phase coincides with the launch of a regional campaign, co-ordinated by Titan, focusing on county lines – a tactic used by organised crime groups in urban areas to exploit and intimidate vulnerable adults and children into committing crime for them in rural areas.

The operation was supported by a number of partners including Halton Borough Council, North West Boroughs Healthcare, NHS Halton and Halton Housing who have been working with Police colleagues to identify vulnerable people who have been exploited by criminal gangs. The council and its partners will now be taking an active role in supporting the communities and vulnerable people who have been exploited by this criminality and help bring back some normality to their lives.

Cllr Dave Cargill, board member for community safety, said “We have been working with our police colleagues and other partners across Halton and Merseyside for some time now to target criminals who prey on vulnerable members of our communities and make their lives, and the lives of others, miserable.

“We will not tolerate such activity in Halton and today’s joint operation is a clear statement that we will take strong action against criminal activity in Halton and will look to protect our communities from this and all other types of criminal activity."

Halton Housing Trust has also been working in partnership with the authorities on the operation.

Group chief executive Nick Atkin said: “Our active support, both in the run up to and today’s successful operation, sends a clear message that Halton Housing will not tolerate criminal activity in our homes and neighbourhoods. 

"We have been working with a number of agencies to ensure there was a positive result today, especially for the vulnerable individuals directly affected by this level of crime but also for our wider communities. 

"Our specialist ASB Team reflects the priority we attach to stamping out anti-social behaviour and ensuring our customers can live safely and securely. 

"This builds upon our longstanding close working relationship with Cheshire Police, Halton Council and a cross section of other local agencies.

"Throughout the next few months we will continue to maintain a high profile staff presence to provide reassurance for our customers.”