Meet the police team who tackle online child abuse
‘NUMBER OF CASES WE INVESTIGATE IS RISING’
WHEN Cath Newton joined the police 21 years ago, the internet was still establishing itself as a global marketplace where paedophiles could, with relative ease, obtain and trade indecent images of children.
Back then, detectives were likely to find themselves dealing with men who got their hands on small collections of photographs, films or literature directly from other paedophiles or through illicit mail order operations.
But the internet changed the landscape forever and gave these offenders previously unimagined opportunities to satisfy their vile cravings.
Now, Detective Sergeant Newton works in a Leicestershire Police unit called the paedophile online investigation team, known as Polit.
It combines cutting-edge technology with traditional policing methods, including undercover “decoy” work, to track down every year hundreds of online offenders - some of whom had been able to accumulate hundreds of thousands of abuse images.
She spoke to illustrate the evergrowing caseload she and her colleagues face, and to give a rare insight into one of the most challenging roles in policing today. The bare statistics tell the story. In the 12 months between April 2019 and March 2020, the team dealt with 253 cases. In the year to the end of March this year, the total number of cases referred to the team rose to 359 - an increase of more than 40 per cent in just a year.
Looking further back confirms the numbers are only going in one direction: in February 2016, it was reported the team had dealt with 160 cases and 200 in 2017.
“The number of cases we investigate is rising, and looking at the figures from March onwards, it’s going to be the same next year too,” says Cath.
Suspects are uncovered by the force’s own work or from information passed to the team by other forces, the National Crime Agency or, controversially, paedophile “hunter” groups - now diplomatically referred to by police as “online activists”.
Typically, more than 90 per cent of the search warrants the team executes result in criminal charges.
“Going on an arrest, I’m always very sympathetic to the families,” says Cath.
“Depending on the intelligence received, sometimes it can be quite specific who we are looking for. But other times, we are not sure who it is at that address - in that family, perhaps - we are going there to arrest. Obviously, we are there for a very important reason when we execute a warrant and carry out an arrest, and remove a person from their home.
“You are left with a distraught wife, partner, child or even a friend whose life has suddenly been turned upside down.
AFTER THE ARREST
“They have a search team tramping through their home, and someone they love has been arrested. That is intrusive, I accept that. And these people may be thinking, ‘My partner would never do this, the police are wrong’.
“We have to explain why we are there, and how we work. These people are as much victims of this as anyone else, and we are as sensitive as we can be.”
“We have to take all the devices we find at the scene, and if there is a child present, we have to assess whether there is a risk to them,” adds Cath.
“We speak to the children to see if there are any concerning factors, and we share that information with social services so they can do an assessment of that family.”
After the arrest and interview, suspects are free to go home - or to a suitable alternative. “The suspects have an option of speaking to a mental health team, and there is also a plan for when they are released,” says Cath.
“We take them home to their families, or wherever they are going to be staying, and make sure they have contact details of support agencies which can help them if they need it.
“We keep in touch with them and let them know how the investigation is progressing. We do everything we can to ensure they don’t go away and harm themselves. We speak to their families too, because at the end of the day, we have a duty of care to them, too.”
Meanwhile, members of the team assess the evidence they have gathered. A number of them are trained to break through any encryption methods offenders employ on electronic devices in an attempt to cover their tracks.
GRADING THE IMAGES
A key task after an arrest is one which would be unimaginably horrific to many people, if not most: grading the confiscated images according to their nature or sexual explicitness.
Getting this part of the investigation right is essential, as the officers’ judgments inform charging decisions authorised by the Crown Prosecution Service and, ultimately, sentencing.
“There are clear guidelines on how long you should be in the lab grading images,” says Cath.
“I have had a number of new starters to the department, and we have procedures in place to prepare them for the work the role involves.
“We have what we call ‘controlled exposure’ to indecent images. Then they have time to reflect on what they have seen before they decide if they want to join the department.
“Not everyone can do this work. It’s a personal thing and down to whatever coping mechanism you have in place - I have a very supportive family and friends.
“It’s my job, and you have to be able to separate yourself from it when you go home. The force provides good support to us, but also we are a close team and we look out for each other. I would know if one of them wasn’t feeling right.”
In her years with the force, Cath has spent time in a number of specialist teams, including the child abuse investigation unit and the Signal team, which manages rape and sexual assault inquiries. She has also been responsible for the management of sex offenders released from prison back into the community.
“People still think a sex offender will look like some kind of old-fashioned stereotype, and it’s just not the case,” she says. “There is no typical profile, and that’s the scary thing in a way, although female offenders are very rare, that’s a fact. It is predominantly males. “A lot of them start off by accessing ‘mainstream’ pornography, and it spirals into the kind of material we deal with them for.
“A lot of the time we get ‘no comment’ in interviews, but sometimes one will say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to knock on my door’ - because they knew what they had been doing was wrong.”
This brings us to the issue of socalled paedophile hunters. These groups pose online as minors and wait for the inevitable approaches, almost always from men. Once the hunters have established the men’s intentions and, crucially, have built up a file of damning evidence, they agree to meet the unsuspecting offenders in person.
Typically, these encounters take place in public places - sometimes the offender’s doorstep - where the hunters reveal their real identities.
Sometimes the hunters risk prejudicing any future court proceedings, which is illegal, by posting footage of their confrontations online, before passing their material to police.
However, others blank out suspects’ faces, and only reveal their targets’ identities when they have been convicted of the offence of grooming.
“We don’t actively encourage or support them in what they do,” says Cath. “But I can understand their motivations a lot of the time.”
She says they put themselves at risk of arrest for offences such as common assault or even false imprisonment, but adds: “A lot of their referrals do go to court. Occasionally we get groups which recognise the person they have gone to sting is vulnerable, and choose not to livestream the encounter and refer it to us. It’s rare, but it has happened.
“Unfortunately, most of the time they do go ahead [with live-streaming the confrontation].
“The suicide risk for the people who are arrested for these offences is high - especially if it has been compounded by being streamed on social media and the local community becomes aware.”
As the interview draws to a conclusion, we ask Cath for her view on the use of the controversial terms “child porn” or “kiddy porn”.
“I think it’s becoming socially unacceptable to use them - I hate those phrases,” she says. “They make it sound as though these images are somehow part of mainstream pornography. They are not. It is child abuse.
“Those terms do not, in any way, reflect the severity of what it is and the images my officers see, and people need to understand that.”
A lot start off by accessing ‘mainstream’ pornography, and it spirals into the kind of material we deal with them for