Superintendent Mike Walker is based at Harrogate Police Station and is North Yorkshire Police’s County Commander overseeing the Harrogate, Craven, Selby, Hambleton and Richmondshire districts. As a concerned parent of three children, Supt Walker raises the hot-topic of online safety and the dangers of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in his first column for the Harrogate Advertiser.
I have been a police officer for over 12 years and worked in many different areas of policing including community, response, investigation and proactive teams. During my career I have seen and dealt with many incidents that I wouldn’t want to describe in a family newspaper. That’s the nature of the job, which all police officers accept. A job that I am as passionate about now as the first day I joined the service.
Despite all the experience I have gathered over the years, there are always new challenges, new ways for criminals to commit offences and new ways for the police to respond to those crimes.
In the 21st century, crime and policing has changed more than anyone could ever have imagined. The explosion of digital technology – which seems to develop and become more advanced week by week – has allowed criminals to become more sophisticated and operate in a world which is difficult to police.
As a result, the police have had to become much smarter. We have to be up to speed with the digital technology that criminals are using to commit fraud, exploit children and sell illegal and prohibited items online.
When dealing with cases such as child sexual exploitation (or CSE as it’s now commonly known), there are often thousands of pieces of evidence contained on smart phones, laptops, tablets and other digital devices, which we have to recover. It is very time consuming and requires a great deal of expertise, which is why we have recently set up our first Cybercrime Unit to deal with the demands of online criminality.
Closely linked to online crime is the increasing threat of the sexual abuse of children. As a father myself, this is an extremely concerning issue and a worry, which I am sure other parents will share. While CSE is certainly not a recent development, it is becoming easier for paedophiles to groom children online by posing as young people on social media sites and messaging applications such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
It is much easier for these depraved criminals to identify and target vulnerable young people whose personal profiles are often open for everyone to see on the internet. This reality is every parent’s worst nightmare and should be a huge wake-up call to those who are simply unaware of what could be going on behind a child’s computer screen or smartphone.
An extremely worrying statistic which North Yorkshire Police highlighted during our recent ‘keep it to your selfie’ campaign, suggests that there are as many as 75,000 paedophiles online at any one time. Just have a think about that. Then honestly ask yourself: “Do I know who my child is talking to on the internet?”
We launched our ‘keep it to your selfie’ campaign at the beginning of the school summer holidays in an effort to educate young people about the dangers of CSE and to get them to think about who they are talking to online and what they are posting on social media sites.
We produced three animated videos which we posted on social media, covering topics such as sharing intimate images, posting personal information online and being sure who you are talking to.
The videos have been a great success so far. They have been viewed more than 70,000 times and they are being shown in Harrogate Odeon before every film over the school holidays. Plans are also in place to show them in every school in North Yorkshire over the coming months.
Although it is really important to make young people aware of the dangers lurking online, I want parents, guardians and carers to be alive to the threats posed on the internet as well.
It is vital that we all understand how young people use the internet. Parents need to know how social media works, what chat sites and apps their children are using and how private information can be shared so easily. They need to be able to recognise that a change in their child’s behaviour could be linked to what they are doing online.
I urge everyone to think about the very real threat of Cybercrime and all the forms it takes. After all, we live in a digital age, where the threat to the safety of us and our children is changing as quickly as the technology the criminals are using.
If you have any concerns about your child being exploited online, there is lots of help available. You can call North Yorkshire Police on 101 or Crimestoppers, if you want to remain anonymous, on 0800 555111.
The Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre (CEOP) offer some really useful advice, log on to http://ceop.police.uk.