We speak to the team working round the clock to stop grooming crimes involving young people
There can’t be many people who don’t have access to some sort of digital device and the internet.
And while the internet can be great, it has also brought with it new challenges, acknowledges DI Paul Coleman, of Lincolnshire Police’s Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) unit.
His team work relentlessly to try to prevent crimes before they happen, with a dedicated Paedophile Online Investigation Team (POLIT) that works behind closed doors.
POLIT’s job is to investigate images online that no one should ever have to see, he says.
The NSPCC children’s charity released figures earlier this year revealing that more than 1,300 grooming crimes have been recorded by police since a new law was brought in last year.
In Lincolnshire, a total of 34 crimes were recorded, with the majority of victims aged between 12-15.
Before the new law came into force, police could not intervene until groomers met their victims, such as in the case of former England footballer Adam Johnson.
He sent sexual messages to a 15-year-old girl before meeting her and engaging in sexual activity.
The new offence of Sexual Communication with a Child, has meant that police can act sooner.
Crimes that the team investigate include not just sexual contact or abuse involving a child but also the sending or inciting a child to send sexual images.
“If someone makes a request to a child for an image, whether they send an image or not is irrelevant. If you request an image you have committed an offence,” DI Coleman explained.
“Child sexual exploitation is basically an adult who is exploiting a child for sexual gratification.”
And with the increase of technology and online platforms criminals are finding more and more ways to exploit children through the sharing, creating and downloading of images.
“If someone makes a request to a child for an image, whether they send an image or not is irrelevant. If you request an image you have committed an offence."
“At the end of every indecent image is a victim,” DI Coleman, a father himself, said.
And the unit’s next job is to try to find out who that victim is to help them.
“When I say, ‘we’ I mean the police forces nationally,” he said.
He spoke of a recent incident the team investigated where a concerned mum got in touch about someone her daughter was speaking to online.
“We go there and do some background intelligence checks and identify the person she is talking to.
“We are not happy so we go and arrest him and seize his devices.
“Devices now are so much more complicated than they used to be.
“We have a dedicated digital forensics unit at Lincoln HQ and they go through the devices to extract information, and that job is becoming more and more difficult over time.
“Keeping up with the apps and the process of extracting it can be absolutely enormous.
“It involves going over text messages, Instagram, Kik, Tindr, Grindr and there are dating apps specifically for teenagers which is a playground for paedophiles.
“Through our investigation we find that in this case the man is in touch with hundreds of children all over the world, including Australia and a remote island in the Indian Ocean.
“These children have all been a victim of this man.”
So what began as a report from a concerned parent turned into a massive police operation involving DI Coleman’s unit working with police forces at home and abroad to help hundreds of victims. The unit has also worked with the FBI on cases.
The NSPCC has called on more to be done to regulate the web, particularly social media sites.
DI Coleman said: “I think social media has a part to play in as much to educate but the difficulty is you have to balance it.
“The internet is one of the best and worst things that has ever happened.
“We have immediate access to information and people all over the world and it is the worst for the same reason.
“People can make up a fake profile and pretend to be ‘14-year-old Danny’ and engage in a conversation with a person and I do not know how we are going to get around that.
“Anybody can take an image off the internet and that is why we need to know who our children are talking to. We need to make them aware of the dangers and speak to our children.”
“People can make up a fake profile and pretend to be ‘14-year-old Danny’ and engage in a conversation with a person and I do not know how we are going to get around that."
Intelligence comes to the unit via a number of sources.
“We are getting information all the time,” DI Coleman said.
Algorithms can automatically flag child abuse images, hate speech and extremist content to moderators of social media sites for removal and they can in turn notify police.
Some offenders are now using social media groups such as school reunion groups to target victims.
“You don’t always know who you went to school with, especially if it was a large academy, so if someone goes on the group and says they went to your school and ask ‘who was your favourite teacher,’ it is not really that one to one thing,” DI Coleman adds.
“It is unfair to criticise Facebook or another app.”
And he adds that he, and Lincolnshire Police, do not condone ‘paedo hunters’ “in any shape or form.”
The reasons are that they can not only interfere with ongoing investigations but innocent people have been targeted and affected.
“If these people have intelligence they want to share with police ring us.”
* To speak to police about any of the issues in this article call 101. In an emergency ring 999.