Met police officers arrested nearly 40 suspected online child abuse offenders and protected more than 130 children during a week of action, latest figures reveal.
The statistics come as the force’s Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation (OCSAE) Unit warned of the increased threat posed by the growing amount of time spent online during the UK’s lockdown.
As part of Operation Legatum, which focused on identifying and pursuing suspected online offenders, officers from across the Met executed 82 warrants, made 38 arrests, and safeguarded 138 children.
During the operation, which ran between 18 May and 23 May, police seized 278 exhibits. Those targeted came from a variety of backgrounds.
Officers will now have to examine tens of thousands of child abuse and exploitation images on phones, tablets, and laptops as part of their investigations.
Detective Superintendent Helen Flanagan, from the Met’s OCSAE Unit which led Operation Legatum, said: “Since the lockdown started, officers have been working flat out to track down those suspected of harming children and young people online.
“Online offenders sometimes try and convince themselves that they’re ‘only looking’ but there is no such thing. Every image is a crime scene, with a real child being abused. Every time offenders look at or share that image they are committing a vile crime and repeating abuse which devastates lives.
“I want people to know that they cannot hide behind a screen and just because we’re in lockdown doesn’t mean my officers won’t find you. If you access this appalling material you can expect to come to our attention and face arrest, prosecution, a criminal record and possible prison time.”
Between the 23 March, when the Government’s ordered lockdown, and 23 April, officers protected 92 children, arrested 45 suspected offenders, and executed 68 warrants.
The Met is still receiving an average of 50 reports a week from the National Crime Agency (202 between March 23 and April 24).
Det Supt Flanagan said that while report figures have not currently increased, they are anticipated to rise later in the year due to people spending more time online during the lockdown. Any increase will not be reflected in the official figures until the months to come.
The Met is urging parents and young people to remain vigilant and educate themselves around the dangers being online can pose, as well as encouraging them to take steps in order to stay safe.
Det Supt Helen Flanagan said: "We know that the internet can be a great space for young people to play, socialise and learn, and offers wonderful opportunities. However, we also know it is used by offenders to prey on young people and commit serious offences.
"Lockdown has led to a significant growth in online use, including by children. Unfortunately, it also means there are a greater number of sexual predators out there trying to target and groom young people."
Det Supt Flanagan urged parents to have conversations with their children about online safety, learn how their children use the internet and, if they notice any behavioural changes in their child, ask questions and explore if there is something worrying them.
Parents are also advised to review and turn on safety features, such as parental controls and privacy settings, on devices to help protect their child.
Det Supt Flanagan said: "I understand that it can sometimes feel overwhelming trying to keep up with apps and sites that young people use. However, there are multiple sources of excellent advice available to help parents and young people have these conversations and navigate the online world, such as the ThinkUKnow website."
The Met works closely with a range of partners across government, statutory agencies, the technology industry, and the third sector to act quickly on referrals, remove images, and protect young people.
One of these is child protection charity Lucy Faithfull, whose Stop it Now! campaign aims to raise awareness of the harm caused by viewing indecent images online and works with law enforcement agencies.
Donald Findlater, Director of the Stop It Now! helpline, said: “The Met Police activity this week, and across the year, highlights the gravity of online sexual crimes against children and the serious consequences for those who view sexual images of under 18s. Along with arrest and possible imprisonment, people risk losing their jobs and families as well as being placed on the sex offenders register. But some of those people recognise that what they are doing is wrong, that it causes harm, and want to change.
“Here on the Stop It Now! helpline we speak to hundreds of people every month who are worried about their own online behaviour or are worried about the behaviour of a loved one - a partner, a parent, a teenage child. This is especially true during lockdown, with more of us spending more time online and sometimes making bad decisions. Stop It Now! provides confidential help and support to tackle any worrying or illegal sexual behaviour, online or offline. Over 2,000 people use our online self-help resources each month.”
As internet usage in general has continued to rise year on year, it has led to an increase of indecent material and assisted this type of offending, and the Met is continually reviewing, adapting and improving its procedures and practices in order to keep pace with rapidly evolving technology in the online sphere.
The Met has more than 200 specialist officers in the Met's dedicated OCSAE teams embedded in each of the 12 borough command areas, together with the central team they work under which deals with the most complex and serious cases.
The local teams, who work alongside frontline borough colleagues, were set up in January this year after the Met was able to double the number of its specialist OCSAE officers thanks to funding from the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime - taking its strength from 90 to a total of 208.