On the 16th floor of the impressive Empress State Building, looming over Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, the men and women of Scotland Yard’s Sexual Offences Command quietly go about some of the most distressing police work imaginable.
This is home to the ‘paedophile unit’ whose job it is to identify victims, stop abuse material being shared and distributed, categorise extreme imagery ready for court and, hopefully, catch paedophiles before they find a victim. Day in, day out officers here wade through an infinite amount of extremely distressing material. One of the most difficult jobs within the squad lies with the team of nine officers responsible for trawling the web’s “tame” to “extreme” websites that play host and distributor to an unlimited volume of child abuse material.
‘Dan’, the team leader, introduces me to the “mild” websites that are often a paedophile’s starting point. “You’re going to get a flavour of the webcam society that we live in which a lot of teenagers experience and think it’s a laugh and a joke,” he says. “We’ve gone in a generation from teenagers experimenting with a kiss and a cuddle behind the bike sheds to this.”
The websites popping up in front of me all contain thousands of indecent images, all easily accessible through a simple Google search, of mainly naked selfies or full frontal shots taken in front of a mirror. The vast majority of girls are smiling or pouting – no one seems upset. What is perhaps even more startling is the number of girls who are filming or photographing themselves in pairs or groups. In one image a girl who appears no older than 12 is being hoisted by three boys the same age – all naked, all laughing.
Dan, who has been in the role for five years, says: “This is happening everywhere, in every [secondary] school around the country. We have to be realistic. You’ll see videos that have been taken in schools.”
The proliferation of supremely confident girls filming or photographing themselves like this has altered the Met’s child abuse ‘victimology’ profiles which, until recently, had assumed girls with webcam access being left alone for hours in their bedroom were the norm. Not anymore. The amount of self-generating child abuse material, from children often oblivious to the exploitation that follows, is overwhelming.
The material ends up being shared globally onto websites with chat forums as voyeurs share fantasies and, ultimately, progress to ‘contact abuse’ having found people with access to vulnerable children.
DI Phillip Royan, who leads the paedophile unit, says: “This is the mildest stuff we deal with. People record the most horrendous stuff – sadism, penetrative sex with children, in families. It’s tough to deal with. It’s a niche field and evokes a lot of emotion in police officers.”
Many of the team are parents and, like any other office, pictures of children are dotted around desks helping no doubt to take the detectives’ minds off their work for brief moments.
Back at Dan’s desk I’m shown how quickly the “mild” websites blur into to the “extreme” with two clicks of the mouse leading to a fetish website catering for BDSM to cannibalism. It is again simple to find – all the more disturbing given this is the site was where New York police officer Gilberto Valle browsed while looking for a woman to cook and eat. The FBI-led investigation also led to the arrest of 58-year-old nurse Dale Bolinger, a US citizen from Kent, who while using the pseudonym ‘Meatmarketman’ offered to help Valle find victims. Bolinger was last year found guilty of sexually grooming a child among other offences.
“We find that these sorts of extremes are connected,” says Dan. “The websites are home to similar minds – looking for any sex, whether it is humans or animals, and these are more examples of that risk-taking culture. If I start talking on these sites about having sex with a seven-year-old child, I’m not going to get told to go away. People will join in the conversation. When we look at the chat logs from the computers of people on these sites, we can see that they have started off on ‘milder’ websites and progressed to this. And trust me these are still mild [to me].”
The bigger threat remains tracing the ‘contact abusers’ – adults who actively seek to directly engage with children or with other adults who have access to children that they can abuse, film and distribute the results.
“Those images are showing crimes in action,” says Dan. “Especially when you have adults abusing children – and they come to such places as this chat room I’m showing you here.”
Dan enters the private chat room although he is not allowed to engage, without proper authority, with those I can see online talking to each other whose usernames leave little to the imagination as to what they are looking for.
“If I start clicking on this I don’t know what’s going to come up – it could be the worst type of stuff. I don’t want to expose you to that nor put you in a position where I have to say ‘sorry, I have to deal with this now’. Trust me, this goes on 24 hours a day.”
One website where a lot of child abuse material is shared lists users from around the world. If you want to see images here you must obtain a profile – and in the UK there are 156,898. “That’s just one site,” says Dan.
Tracking paedophiles is a laborious and often frustrating process. Applications to organisations or companies for access to their information have to be made – and data requested must be specific, rather than a blanket request for everyone with BT emails for example.
“We have to be very careful within UK legislation to ensure the techniques we have don’t push someone into an offence they would never have committed,” says DI Royan, referring to the undercover work his team carry out. “We want to be able to play along and draw [paedophiles] out into a real environment. They want to break out because they want to have sex with a real child. We’re using our skills and techniques to find out who they are and get them before they go out and meet someone.”
Dealing with multinationals in foreign jurisdictions, such as Google and Facebook, pose challenges. There is clear frustration with how easy it is to find indecent child material – even unwittingly – via search engines, no matter what the companies say about blocking material.
“Teenagers suffering a crisis of confidence might tap in ‘shy teens’ to try and find information to help them,” says Dan. “On the second page of Google, as you saw, there are websites full of indecent images someone can easily stumble onto. Also, simple searches such as ‘family fun’ mean something slightly different in certain environments. And Google is just one search engine – they do not run the internet.”
DI Royan says: “Facebook has terms and conditions about 20 pages long. They are big on privacy and the things our unit cannot do with them is quite surprising. The public think we can just ring these companies up and get the information we want – we can’t. Equally, these companies don’t support criminality so are working with us at a strategic level, but there are long processes we have to follow.”
Both detectives advocate a return to the public information films of decades past – when memorable campaigns with slogans such as ‘Stranger Danger’ were judged a widespread success. The scale of the problem today means, in their eyes, tackling child abuse is a social and educational rather than a police issue. The unit hears “frightening” stories of children as young as five engaging with people online
“The education isn’t perhaps there with the schools,” says DI Royan. “Kids are still aware of all the physical ‘stranger danger’, but the online stuff needs to rammed home again and again and again – and it should be relevant from an early age.”
It is not just educating children – the unit work closely with The Lucy Faithful Foundation, an organisation which tries to help offenders, including after conviction. The officers admit they may never stop the problem – only manage it to the best of their ability.
“We don’t want to give parents nightmares, equally we have to be honest and realistic about the problem,” DI Royan says.
The longer I spend with his unit the more I feel that inducing a nightmare is possibly the best way to prevent one. While sentencing a gang of paedophiles – all white men – to 107 years in jail at Bristol Crown Court last week Judge Julian Lambert said: “In the worst nightmare, from the very deepest recesses of the mind, at the darkest hour of the night, few can have imagined the terrifying depravity which you men admit.”
The gang met online and travelled the country to meet up and abuse young children while streaming it over the internet. One of the men had no previous convictions and previously had a “well-respected” job in the charity sector. The victims, those identified so far, were all under five years old.
“Paedophiles come from all sections of society,” says Dan. “Teachers, judges, police officers. It is a classless crime and we’ve given you just a brief insight of the sheer scale – covering not just law enforcement but today’s culture, education and society. It’s frightening.”