Hundred arrests in just 12 months during crackdown on internet predators
More than 100 suspects have been arrested in the past 12 months in the West Midlands during an operation targeting online child sexual abuse.
Almost a quarter of those arrests were made during the first three months of the Covid-19 lockdown.
And Detective Inspector Stephen Wills from the West Midlands Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU) warned he expects a further increase in reports of suspicious online activity as lockdown eases.
He said a team of officers from the ROCU has been actively searching on social media, instant messaging apps and other online platforms for people seeking to groom children online − and to intercept them before they are able to meet youngsters.
From July 2019 to June 2020, officers arrested 110 people for child sexual offences.
Forty-five have already been convicted in court and jailed collectively for 130 years, while others are awaiting trial or remain under investigation.
The team has seen a significant increase in the number of referrals and reports of suspicious online activity during the Covid-19 lockdown as online predators take advantage of children away from school spending more time online.
Det Insp Wills said: “In the first three months of the lockdown we arrested 27 suspects and safeguarded 33 children we believed were being groomed online.
“But we expect to see a further increase in reporting to us as we emerge from lockdown, children return to school, and more offences or suspicious activity come to light.”
Under the operation, codenamed Project Atari, which launched in 2017, the team has arrested more than 250 people believed to be trying to groom children over the internet.
So far 124 have been convicted in court and jailed for a total of 314 years.
Det Insp Wills said almost all of those convicted admitted their guilt at court, which was testament to the strength of the evidence gathered by the specialist ROCU unit.
He added: “Vigilante ‘paedophile hunter’ groups have emerged in recent times and there seems to be a perception police are not doing this work − but that’s absolutely not the case. We’ve been active online, working alongside social media providers, and protecting children for many years and with great success.
“Project Atari’s intention is to safeguard children in the West Midlands, but the very nature of the internet and online interactions means targets can be anywhere in the country, indeed anywhere in the world.
“We have sent evidential packages to almost every police force in the UK and law enforcement agencies in Europe and beyond.
“Of the 252 people arrested, 85 were offenders looking to harm children in the communities of West Midlands, West Mercia, Warwickshire and Staffordshire.
“I am very proud to say that our team has directly safeguarded 413 vulnerable children over the last few years and have indirectly safeguarded approximately 10,000 children that the offenders had direct access to, either through the internet, through their work, social life or family.”
Det Insp Wills said one recent case saw officers lying in wait at a Birmingham park for a man who believed he had planned to meet a 12-year-old girl.
The 41-year-old has since been charged with child sex offences and remanded in prison ahead of an appearance at Birmingham Crown Court on September 29.
“Youngsters can be badly scarred psychologically and emotionally through online exchanges with these offenders,” said Det Insp Wills.
“It can have a devastating effect on the lives of victims and a child’s safety is at the forefront of all operational and investigative activity.
“We want to create an environment of disruption, fear and apprehension among people who operate online to sexually abuse children.”