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Child abuse images viewed by ‘horrifying’ number of people

October 26, 2017 ·  By Mattha Busby for www.theguardian.com

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Senior police officer calls for nationwide debate on how to address extent of online crime

Dave Thompson of West Midlands police said he was ‘staggered’ by the scale of online crime involving child abuse images. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Dave Thompson of West Midlands police said he was ‘staggered’ by the scale of online crime involving child abuse images. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

A “horrifying” number of people in the UK are looking at images of child abuse online, according to one of the country’s leading police officers.

Dave Thompson, the chief constable of West Midlands police, told the Commons home affairs select committee that society at large needs to discuss the issue, which is about “much more than law enforcement”.

“I am staggered by what I see in terms of the operations the force carries out on the peer-to-peer sharing of images and more sensitive covert policing techniques we carry out,” he said. “The amount of men in this country who appear to show an active interest in this area is horrifying and the scale of it, I think, takes my breath away.

“There is a really big discussion I think, as a society, about how we deal with this, that’s much more than law enforcement. Of course it makes us all feel deeply uncomfortable to think that people who have that involvement in those activities should in any shape or form escape punishment. But the scale of it is just absolutely huge.”

There was a 258% increase in the number of websites dedicated to the distribution of child sexual abuse imagery between 2015 and 2016, according to the Internet Watch Foundation. However, the UK hosts less than 0.1% of the world’s child sexual abuse images.

At the meeting the Tory MP Tim Loughton asked about suggestions that there should be alternative prosecutions for those guilty of viewing indecent images because those in denial were unlikely to be receptive to treatment.

Thompson said: “Everything as a police officer and a parent says that we need to do something urgently to deter people in this area.

“I think if people are in denial that they’ve got a problem, then we need to be really careful that treatment might not work, but I think the broader issue that’s being raised is this is a massive challenge, I think, that goes far beyond policing.”

Charities including Stop It Now! work to eradicate child porn online and provide confidential support to users. The majorities of offenders avoid custodial sentences, with suspended sentences and community orders more common.

Police budgets, excluding counter-terrorism grants, have fallen sharply since 2010, amounting to a 20% cut from 2010-15 and police numbers continue to fall.

Gareth Morgan, the chief constable of Staffordshire police, said that the decision to prosecute those who view explicit images of children should not be based on whether police have the resources. “It has to be based on judgments that a range of people make, not just the police service,” he told MPs.

“And that’s about how you best manage the risk of an offender going forward so there’s a range of of options, and I think that’s a decision that you take with a range of partners, not just the police on their own. And from my perspective that should never be driven by a resourcing issue because that’s not the right reason to make the decision and it’s certainly not taking the issue seriously.”

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