Professor Julia Davidson, Co-Director of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex, and her colleague Jeffrey DeMarco, CATS Research Fellow, reveal some early findings from their latest research project.
The CATS team has recently completed the first stage of the European Commission ISEC-funded ‘Illegal Use of the Internet‘ project, which focuses on gaining a better understanding of criminal justice and industry practice in investigating sexual crimes perpetrated online against children.
This includes, but is not limited to, online grooming of minors and the production, collection and distribution of indecent images depicting sexual and abusive acts of minors. Having a clearer understanding of both police and industry practice, and how they can best work together in the prevention of these crimes, is of great importance as young people spend a considerable amount of time immersed in an online world. The project is a multi-disciplinary effort, with international partners in Ireland, the Netherlands and Italy.
The first work package focused on providing an understanding of police practice in dealing with online child abuse. A police survey was sent to every police force in England and Wales and, at the time of writing, over 930 officers of differing ranks have responded. Nearly 90% of those surveyed claimed to have had contact with cyber-crime related activities in their last year of service, with approximately 75% of them dealing first hand with online grooming and collections of indecent child images. Training on dealing with these crimes is described as adequate on average (44%) but over a third reported that the preparation and “on-the-job” skills development they were provided with was poor. There was an indication of good practice, with over 80% of police surveyed actively working with schools in raising awareness and knowledge of online risks and dangers to young people. Good collaboration is described as key with over three-quarters of the sample stating that better communication and data sharing between organisations, both criminal justice and other organisations (i.e. schools, third sector, government) is of paramount importance when dealing with these types of crimes.
Although all police forces are encountering online child abuse crimes, the ability to respond appears to vary widely from force to force:
“…some police forces are very well equipped to respond to the online CSA issue and are knowledgeable about the problem and others are really not. Some don’t have a good understanding of image collection for example…” – Law enforcement Expert1, September 2014
The above illustrates two of the problems emerging from the literature and our own research. Firstly, there is a lack of standard practice across forces, leading to differential training and resource allocation, and, secondly, officers identified the need to work much more in partnership with industry:
“…some of the most exciting developments in terms of both ensuring the safety of young people online, but also reducing the burden on police come from industry… we cannot deny that [industry] played a very active role in helping manage some of the problems that are the inevitable consequence of technological change…” – SH2 Expert, November 2014
It is clear that industry has a great deal to offer, not least in terms of technological expertise and control over the mediums with which potential young victims and perpetrators engage. Industry is often the first to pick up on online grooming behaviour, for example, and some have developed sophisticated techniques for identifying this behaviour. It is clear at this early stage of the research that establishing an effective partnership between law enforcement and industry is of paramount importance as a first key step in the protection of children from online abuse.