The senior policeman in charge of the inquiry into historical child sexual abuse has admitted that the justice system cannot cope with the number of people seeking to exploit and abuse children. Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, said that the police should punish those in possession of indecent images of children more leniently, assigning their limited resources to those who have physically abused children.
His comments were followed in early March by a report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary which concluded that a lack of funding meant some police forces were having to ration their services across the board. It said that the public was being let down as a result. The policing minister, Brandon Lewis, responded that funding cuts were not the cause of the problem and encouraged forces to become more efficient at managing their resources.
While this may be possible for some areas of policing, sexual abuse and online exploitation is certainly not one of them.
Over the past two years I have been conducting research with the team in a local police force that manages sexual and violent offenders. I have seen the devastating impact which budget cuts and staff shortages have had on the morale and the mental health of police staff. I have witnessed first hand the immense pressure created by the rising number of sexual offenders being prosecuted and I have watched as officers have lost their ability to do the job they are expected to do.
In the face of an ongoing rise in reporting rates of child sexual abuse and exploitation, the police’s public protection remit has had to change dramatically. The police had more than 52,500 registered sexual offenders to monitor by the end of March 2016. Policing undoubtedly needs to change in order to accommodate this rapid growth in abuse investigations, prosecutions and management of registered sexual offenders, but it cannot succeed without a major injection of government funding.
This is what Bailey should have demanded. He was right, however, to admit that the system has reached saturation point: police staff need to be given the necessary resources to investigate, manage and monitor offenders and the public needs to know that the current system is failing on many fronts.
Some may argue that he was right to suggest greater leniency for some offenders. In the face of such overwhelming numbers of offenders in the system, those people who are most at risk of committing physical abuse should be prioritised.
But offenders who are found to possess indecent images or videos of children, and those who have committed a physical offence against a child, are inextricably linked. Viewing indecent images of children can be a precursor to the actual physical abuse of children because it can provide people with the desire for sexual abuse, which can encourage them to commit such offences. It can also represent the first step in the criminal career of a sexual offender: once internal and external barriers, such as guilt, shame and societal disapproval are overcome, it becomes easier for them to move on to more serious offences.
American sociologist David Finkelhor presented this idea in the 1980s as a series of hurdles which an offender negotiates in order to commit a sexual offence. Applying Finkelhoer’s theory, it is clear to see that as each hurdle is overcome, the “one off” image offender can easily become a systematic abuser or a predatory sexual offender. This was supported by a 2012 report from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre which indicated there was a correlation between image offending and contact offending.
As Gabrielle Shaw, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, so rightly stated in response to Bailey’s comments, behind every indecent image there is a victim. Every downloaded and shared image also perpetuates the demand for that victim. If we fail to see that image offenders are as “risky” as contact offenders then we are setting our system up to fail the victims of these crimes.
I appreciate from my own ongoing research that for some offenders, viewing indecent images may be a way to manage feelings which are so abhorred in our society. Yet anyone who voluntarily views indecent images of children has already demonstrated a propensity for the humiliation, degradation and sexualisation of children. This arguably makes them equally as “risky” to children as those who have already committed a contact offence.
Departments involved in the monitoring and management of registered sexual offenders are an incredibly skilled and specialised section of the police force. They have successfully assessed, risk managed and monitored offenders, and along with the National Probation Service and other agencies involved in public protection, they work tirelessly to keep the public safe and rehabilitate sexual offenders.
Yet, as their task is becoming increasingly difficult, their budgets have also had drastic cuts. Some departments have been restructured and experienced police officers replaced by civilian investigative officers. There is a real concern that these civilian officers will not be able to fulfil this role as successfully in the very near future.
As one detective constable I spoke to during my research explained to me:
We’re currently failing victims, we’re failing offenders and we’re failing in our statutory duty to protect the public.
If we want to learn from the multitude of mistakes made by previous governments in the arena of child sexual abuse, then we need to commit money. We need to give police the funding necessary to investigate, prosecute and manage all sexual offenders equally.