A specialist police team investigating the most serious and complex cases of online child abuse have arrested 50 suspects in Northern Ireland in the last year.
Evidence gathered by detectives trained to hunt down offenders involved in accessing or distributing vile images of abuse in the dark recesses of the internet has so far resulted in 37 of the detained individuals being charged.
The figures were released by the PSNI as it granted rare access to the work of the Child Internet Protection Team (CIPT) – an eight-strong police unit based in Belfast.
Most sex abuse cases in the Province are investigated by public protection units across the PSNI’s districts. The CIPT only gets involved when the images involved cross a high level grading threshold or if there is an international dimension to the crime.
The arrests in the last 12 months were linked to almost 70 search operations – raids that not only involve the seizure of every piece of IT equipment in the property but often result in ripped up floorboards and dismantled furniture as officers look for hidden discs or USB sticks.
Rachel Shields, temporary detective superintendent in the PSNI’s Serious Crime Branch, heads up the CIPT.
“The relevance of those figures is to show there is an issue in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland doesn’t escape,” she said.
“There is this perception that this sort of child abuse goes on elsewhere, not in Northern Ireland, but we do have very dangerous offenders in Northern Ireland.”
She added: “The Child Internet Protection Team deals specifically with high end child abuse – images and videos of children being abused online.
“These are the most complex cases. It is important to realise that in the virtual world, in the cyber world there are no borders and no boundaries and this would be across a global scale, an international scale in terms of the abuse online that this team would deal with.”
Ms Shields said she wanted to shine a light on the team’s often secretive work in part to alert those engaged in such crimes of her team’s capacity.
In a stark warning to paedophiles, the senior officer said: “The message is very clear – we are watching you online. You leave a digital footprint when you are downloading, viewing, making indecent images of children and we have the capacity, capability and determination to catch you and bring you to justice.”
She said the PSNI would never reveal the CIPT’s methodologies, as it did not want to give offenders any advantage but she gave assurances the unit was using cutting-edge technologies.
“We link with our National Crime Agency colleagues and we work with other police services across the world to make sure we have got the most up-to-date technology,” she said.
“It’s a big investment but it’s a very important area of business and we will make sure we keep moving with the times.”
The unit engages in proactive and reactive policing, with operations often triggered by intelligence coming from outside the organisation.
That can range from information discovered by the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre to a tip-off from a concerned member of the public who has found something on their partner’s computer.
Ms Shields referred to one recent case in Northern Ireland where a father found information on his child’s phone that indicated she was being groomed by a man who was intending to pick her up from a Girls’ Brigade gathering with the purpose of having sex with her.
Officers swooped before a crime had been committed.
Ms Shields said the case illustrated the importance of parents being aware of the dangers online.
“So know what your children are doing online, know who they are talking to, who is talking to them online,” she said.
“And make sure they are aware that if they are involved with anything or are uncomfortable about anybody online asking them to do things that doesn’t feel right or they are uncomfortable with please pick up the phone and contact the police and we will put various interventions in place and make sure we track down anybody who is trying to abuse any of your children online.”
She added: “You wouldn’t release your child to go and walk the streets of Belfast unsupervised at the age of 10, 11, 12 or younger yet a lot of people are leaving their kids online unsupervised.”
Stressing the global nature of the work, Ms Shields said some cases originate from images discovered in a country on the other side of the world while, in other instances, a raid instigated in Northern Ireland may lead to suspects being flagged up in other countries.
She said one recent local case triggered 119 separate follow-up investigations by forces outside Northern Ireland.
Describing the often complex downloading trails, she said: “It’s like a spider’s web.”