AN operation to track people suspected of sharing indecent images of children online has seen 10 people arrested in Worcestershire.
A total of 17 people were arrested by West Mercia Police officers, part of a total of 660 suspects detained and questioned during a secret national operation.
The UK-wide operation was co-ordinated by the National Crime Agency (NCA) and in recent months it has been sending intelligence to forces across England and Wales about suspected paedophiles in their areas using the web to view, or share indecent pictures.
Investigations were launched into each of these individuals and a succession of search warrants was executed at their home addresses.
The 17 suspects are now on police bail as further work is done to establish if they possessed indecent images of children and if they were sharing them with others via the internet.
Many of those arrested had some form of access to children and more than 400 children across the UK have been protected from harm, with 31 in the Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police area, the force said.
The arrests by area were in:
South Worcestershire: 4
North Worcestershire: 6
Telford & Wrekin: 3
The operation was co-ordinated at a regional level with Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police working closely with Staffordshire Police and West Midlands Police.
Across the West Midlands region, 74 people were arrested and 44 children protected or safeguarded.
Detective Superintendent Steve Cullen, head of the Protecting Vulnerable People department for Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police, said: “This was is unprecedented, UK-wide operation that aimed to target those people using the internet to access indecent images of children.
"We want to protect children who are victims of, or might be at risk of, sexual exploitation.
“Children are victimised not only when they are abused and an image is first taken. They are victimised repeatedly every time that image is viewed.
“This is the first time we have been able to speak about the operation publicly because our priority has been to protect children, identify offenders and secure evidence.
“Over several months we worked closely with the national policing agencies, the other West Midlands forces and bodies such as local Children’s Services and the Worcestershire-based child protection charity, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation.
“We have been able to identify victims and ensure they get the proper support and care.
“Child abusers need to know that the internet is not a safe space for them to operate. They leave a digital footprint and we will find it.
“We have worked closely with the NCA on other cases in recent months. This operation means we have arrested 37 people this year in the West Mercia area using their intelligence about online sharing of indecent images.
“The evidence indicates that the majority of these suspects were not previously known to law enforcement agencies, certainly in a child protection context. They are now, and they will stay in our sights.
“We still have a lot of work to do to assess what offences have been committed and, where we have sufficient evidence, to charge those we have arrested.
“I would like to take this opportunity to encourage anybody who suspects someone is exploiting children online please report it to the police immediately.”
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Policing Lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations, said: “Sexual abuse is a complex crime taking many forms. The vast majority of forces around England and Wales are dealing with an unprecedented increase in the number of reports of sexual abuse of children.
"Forces are investigating exploitation of children and young people by groups and gangs, non-recent abuse including large scale investigations into abuse in institutions over many years and sexual abuse by parents and family members.
“During this operation, we’ve targeted offenders accessing child abuse images. Police must continue to use a range of investigative techniques targeting all forms of abuse if we going to protect children and bring offenders to justice. Chief officers are committed to using all the tools available to them because nothing is more important in policing than protecting vulnerable people."
And Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Stop it Now!, said: “The Stop it Now! child sexual abuse prevention helpline is taking an increasing number of calls from men who are concerned about their online behaviour as well as from their families and friends.
“Thousands of men have called following their arrest for possession of indecent images of children. Thousands of (mostly) women have called because of a partner's arrest, or simply because of a concern about their partner's sexual behaviour towards children.
“The Stop it Now! Helpline provides confidential advice, support and help to ensure that children are kept safe. This includes supporting those who have offended online to take responsibility for their abusive behaviour as well as supporting their family and friends to help manage future risk.
“However many are arrested for possession of indecent images of children, there are hundreds or thousands more who have viewed such images and have not yet been arrested. We urge all such men - young and old alike - to contact the helpline for help to stop their illegal and harmful behaviour."
Anyone with concerns about a child or young person, or if you are a child or young person and someone has asked you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, either on or offline, should contact police on 101.
You can also report through the CEOP safety centre at ceop.police.uk.
The Stop It Now! helpline can be reached on 0808 1000 900.