Undercover officers targeting child abusers online make more than 1,600 arrests in a year

Specialist undercover units hunting child abusers online made more than 1,600 arrests in just one year, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has revealed.

Feb 9, 2024
By Paul Jacques
Picture: IWF

Offenders ranged from those who had viewed or shared indecent images online to those who had encouraged children to send them indecent images online, as well as those who groomed children via online sites and then arranged to meet them so that they could sexually abuse them.

Officers from the NPCC’s Undercover Online (UCOL) network made 1,665 arrests across England and Wales between October 2022 and September 2023, safeguarding 1,397 children.

The arrests resulted in 1,386 years custodial sentences, the NPCC said.

NPCC lead for Undercover Online, Assistant Chief Constable Alastair Simpson, said: “The fight against child sexual abuse will never stop and these arrests highlight the focus and priority that not only police, but all of society must place on tackling these awful crimes.

“Policing has worked hard to develop a better understanding of child sexual exploitation and abuse in recent years. Specialist investigators work relentlessly on really tough cases every day to keep children safe and robustly pursue offenders.

“There are many examples of innovative police work to protect victims, and bring perpetrators to justice.”

The NPCC’s UCOL network was formed in 2017, with funding from the Home Office, to crack down on predators using the internet to target vulnerable young people. The specialist investigators work closely with partners including the National Crime Agency (NCA) to gather intelligence and pursue offenders.

The NPCC said “significant progress” has been made with year-on-year growth in the number of arrests over the past five years related to illegal use of online platforms including the dark web.

UCOL investigators use covert tactics to target dangerous offenders, focusing on a range of offences including grooming, peer-to-peer offending, live-streaming, contact offences and historical or current familial offending.

In 2022/23, the NPCC said it:

  • Targeted offenders seeking to access the live-streaming of “abhorrent material”;
  • Introduced a new team to research changing offender behaviour and to provide intelligence reports on online platforms and updates to the Home Office on future threats; and
  • Worked with the NCA, national partners, Home Office and industry to explore technological innovation that would improve efficiency and outcomes.

Mr Simpson added: “Reports continue to rise, and we encourage anyone who is a victim of any kind of sexual abuse, or is concerned it is taking place, to come forward and report it. Our officers recognise the challenges many victims and survivors must overcome in making the often difficult decision to come forward and report offences, especially when they involve family members.

“This is not something that policing can tackle alone and we work closely with partners and charities to encourage victims to come forward.

“When victims do come forward I want to ensure they get the most professional, caring and compassionate service from us on every occasion. I am proud of colleagues who work relentlessly in this area to bring offenders of some of the most appalling crimes imaginable to justice.”

Wendy Hart, deputy director for child sexual abuse at the NCA, said: “The sheer volume of child sexual abuse material available on the open web creates a permissive environment for individuals to develop a sexual interest in children. Offenders use online platforms to share their criminal activity, which in some cases can escalate into even more severe offending.

“The NCA works with policing to ensure a coordinated response to this threat. Our collective use of undercover officers has been crucial in gaining insight into offender behaviour and developing wider preventative measures.

“Education is also a key part of the law enforcement response. We aim to reduce the vulnerability of children and young people and encourage them to report abuse to trusted adults, the police or the NCA’s CEOP Safety Centre.”

Minister for Security, Tom Tugendhat said the “scale and severity of child sexual abuse committed online is appalling”.

“We must be unrelenting in the pursuit of offenders,” he said.

“The police’s Undercover Online Network is vital for delivering swift justice to predators and safeguarding vulnerable children.

“We will continue to send a message to child sex offenders that they cannot act with impunity online. They will be found, and they will be punished for their crimes.”

In the coming months the NPCC intends to:

  • Increase understanding of the illegal use of artificial intelligence in the online space;
  • Implement the UCOL national strategic delivery plan across core areas of focus; and
  • Accelerate industry engagement to inform and influence moderation and monitoring of platforms.

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