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'Industrial scale' CSA work being mopped up by non-specialists

Law enforcement has been referred to as a “sticking plaster” in the face of the rising volume of Child Sexual Abuse material (CSAM).

The production and consumption of CSAM is now on an “industrial scale” a report from the Police Foundation has said.

Between 2016-17 and 2020-21, the volume of obscene publications offences increased by over 450 per cent.

What was once deemed to be specialist work is now “spilling over into the everyday work of other teams”.

This has meant that in some forces, lower risk CSAM suspects (and many online grooming offences) are referred to generalist investigation or local teams, who have other pressures to deal with.

Interviews conducted by the researchers showed that some local teams did not progress certain cases if they deemed it low risk - they do not always however have the training to accurately determine risk levels.

69 per cent of senior stakeholders have said there are insufficient resources in their digital forensic teams for online CSA, while 52 per cent reported insufficient resource in their specialist investigation teams.

Meanwhile, delays to accessing digital forensics teams, in on­e case resulted in­ a backlog of six to 12 months.

Even for those currently in dedicated online CSA roles – 64 per cent have not completed the specialist child investigation training course.

The authors of the report, Michael Skidmore and Beth Aitkenhead, have called on the NPCC and the College to map the current skillset against the required capabilities. They said such a task should “inform a new national plan to recruit and train the people required to address identified skills deficits”.

In the UK only 16 per cent of officers had received specialist training for online CSA.

They have also called for increased investment in technology to enable investigators to keep up with the changing threat of the crime.

Low risk offenders should be given a conditional caution, be placed on relevant safeguarding databases and enrolled in psycho-educational programmes, the report said. Such a reform would reduce pressure on police and the criminal justice system.

Director of Police Foundation, Rick Muir, told Police Oracle that they had always expected the volume levels to be high and that they knew it was a growing problem.

 “A particular concern is what we see in quite a lot of cases, where children have generated the images themselves,” he said.

“Local police teams go in an talk to them and the result is ‘don’t be silly, don’t take those images’. But they don’t have the training or knowledge to dig a bit deeper and follow up on possible leads.”

He said there needed to be investment in specialist investigators, training local police teams and technology, as well as a move back to proactive approaches where possible.

There also needs to be efforts from social media companies, improvements in education for children and parents and explore options like age verification sites to create safe internet spaces.

“I’m optimistic we can make a difference but a systemic approach is needed to prevent these offences,” he added.

“I think the will is there to improve, but we need to equip the police and do more to prevent things getting on the internet in the first place which will get the volumes down and leave the police freer to pursue the most serious offenders."

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