How West Midlands Police officers are helping to smash the worldwide horror of online child sex abuse
In the second of a five-part series of features on specialist police departments working behind the scenes to protect the public, Birmingham Post crime correspondent Mark Cowan looks at the harrowing work of officers specialising in tackling online child abuse.
It’s a crisp Autumn morning, the sun has not yet risen above the streets of Birmingham and most people are still asleep – but a band of online child abuse investigators are already hard at work.
Detectives from the Child Exploitation Investigation Team have swooped to arrest a registered sex offender suspected of downloading sickening child sex images.
The man has previous convictions for making indecent images of children.
Armed with a warrant to search the married family man’s north Birmingham home, officers crept up to the front door before smashing their way in.
It may seem extreme, but detectives now use the rapid-entry techniques, normally set aside for targeting dangerous or violent offenders, for raids on those suspecting of accessing websites trading in images of child abuse.
Det Con Alistair Gadd, who led the operation, said: “We had intelligence that a registered sex offender who had previous convictions for downloading indecent images was using the internet to gain access to indecent images again. We use forced entry techniques because, more and more often, we are facing paedophiles suspected of looking at images who are technically aware. They would try to delete material before we got through the front door if we knocked.”
Within minutes, the 56-year-old was under arrest and computers and discs were bagged up ready for the tedious, but necessary, search work to begin.
In all investigations of this nature, officers have to scour hundreds of files on computer hard drives and compact discs for evidence of illegal images of child sex abuse. The detectives purposefully do not use the term child pornography, so as to avoid comparing the images to legal pornography.
Any suspect images have to be categorised into one of five levels. Level one is erotic images of children and five involves the most horrific images of abuse.
Because paedophiles often hoard images as if they were prized collections, it could mean thousands upon thousands of images have to be viewed, but police say with the right techniques they are “very good and finding these files and finding them quickly”.
Det Con Gadd said it was a task he could never get used to but one that was crucial in bringing offenders to justice – and, more importantly, saving young children from abuse.
“There’s never a day that goes by where I’m not shocked by some form of depravity we haven’t seen before,” he said. “We’ve seen horrendous or violent sexual abuse of children but it is sometimes the little details that make it much worse. You never get used to it. If I see children the same age as my own children, I find that hard because of the personal element to it.”
Colleague Claire Daker added she coped by looking at the images as evidence. She added: “If I don’t look at these images, then we are never going to stop it. It’s a fantastic job to make a difference, we are taking people off the streets who pose the greatest risk to the most vulnerable people in society – children.”
For these officers, the real satisfaction comes from saving children from a lifetime of abuse.
While many images are historic and repeatedly passed between offenders, a proportion are evidence of fresh abuse. They are shared with law enforcers around the world in the hope of identifying offenders and rescuing children.
In the past year, the team has identified more than 100 children classed as at risk of sexual harm. Four children were taken into protective custody in the United States after a woman from Maine was arrested following a tip-off from the team as part of an inquiry into abuse on the web linked to the Midlands.
Meanwhile, a number of children were made the “subject of child protection plans” after they arrested a Birmingham man and two other from the Black Country who were trading in child sex images via their mobile phones.
Det Sgt Westley Martin, who leads the team, said: “It’s one of the most challenging areas of policing because of the type of people and type of offending – but someone has to care and make a difference and that’s what this team does. We’re extremely proud we have identified children who will no longer be subjected to abuse.”
n Following the operation, a 56-year-old from Birmingham appeared before city magistrates charged with five counts of making indecent images and was remanded in custody.