Offenders are simply being visited at home – and told not to do it again
Police have visited 24 suspects since November thanks to new powers
Sussex police chief said those looking briefly at images would be visited
National Crime Agency claims as many as 750,000 British men are potential child sex offenders
Police have been accused of putting children at risk after it emerged that paedophiles who look at indecent images of children online are being let off with just a warning – by officers who turn up on their doorsteps.
Even though viewing pictures of child abuse is punishable by jail, offenders are simply being visited at home – and told not to do it again.
Police have knocked on the doors of 24 suspects since last November thanks to surveillance powers to track computers used to download illegal images from the internet.
It is feared that the controversial pilot project by Sussex Police shows that forces are being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of child abuse pictures now circulating online.
As many as 750,000 British men are potential child sex offenders according to the National Crime Agency – the UK’s equivalent to the FBI – while some police chiefs have suggested many paedophiles should receive medical help rather than prosecution.
Last night, Jim Gamble, the former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, warned: ‘How long will it be until one of these men who’s been given a slap on the wrist makes a contact offence with children?’
Sussex’s Deputy Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney, who is also the national lead for policing children, said the force was still arresting those thought to pose a risk to children, and that only those who had looked briefly at abuse images would be spoken to by officers.
She said: ‘There are people who are curious and frankly would be horrified if anybody ever knew. And we are very quick with those people to say, “Look, we know what you are doing, you know what you are doing” and that is that.
‘There are others who are downloading images and then there is contact offending. It is all really awful and it is about where the threat and the harm is, and that is where we try to judge where our intervention is.’
She added: ‘We don’t argue that because someone has not harmed a child, they are just looking at it, that that’s safe. Of course it is not safe – that child was harmed. So we don’t look at it lightly.’
Under the scheme, Sussex Police’s Paedophile Online Investigation Team (POLIT) tries to identify the unique IP address associated with an individual computer to work out who has accessed indecent images.
They will then carry out ‘intelligence and background checks’ along with ‘formal risk assessments’ to determine if the suspect has any previous convictions or any access to children, as well as establishing if the images depicted are the most serious types of sex abuse or not.
If they decide that no children are at risk and the images are the lowest level, the team may simply issue verbal advice or a warning letter.
Sussex Police said: ‘One tactic available to POLIT officers is to visit some people whose internet addresses are suspected of being involved with images at the lowest level of seriousness, to show them the police are aware and are watching, and to deter continuance.
Sussex’s Deputy Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney said the force was still arresting those thought to pose a risk to children, and that only those who had looked briefly at abuse images would be spoken to by officers
‘Those visits, of which there have been 24 since November last year, sometimes include handing warning letters to the subject.’
A National Crime Agency spokesman said: ‘The NCA and its policing partners continue to increase their combined efforts to pursue individuals viewing indecent images of children, while being clear about the need to prioritise the offenders posing the biggest risk. There is a threshold test for charging suspected image offenders laid down by the CPS in England and Wales, and law enforcement bodies will take decisions on a case-by-case basis.’
But Mr Gamble said: ‘Anyone who makes a judgment that these people do not pose a risk is playing the lottery with children’s safety. It is sexually orientated behaviour that will lead them on a spiral of abuse.
‘If police have the ability to track them to their homes, I don’t understand why they aren’t dealing with them through the justice system.’