POLICE have arrested 79 suspected paedophiles, 16 of whom held “positions of trust” giving them potential access to children, as part of a major national operation targeting illegal online activity.
The nine-month investigation was designed to crack down on people viewing or sharing indecent images of children, in particular offenders who were employed in sensitive occupations such as teachers or coaches.
Detectives say the operation was launched in an attempt to stop child abuse before it happens, preventing people who share indecent images online from going on to commit more serious “contact offences”, and to safeguard youngsters who may be at risk of sexual exploitation.
Officers executed 74 warrants across Devon and Cornwall, the third highest nationally, which resulted in 79 arrests, including three registered sex offenders.
A total of 16 suspects held a position of trust or sensitive occupation.
One suspect has been charged, with the rest all currently on police bail.
Police said they were unable to reveal any more details about where or when the suspects were detained.
The operation, led by Devon and Cornwall Police, the National Crime Agency and the Association of Chief Police Officers, identified 52 children at risk, who are now safe and protected.
Detective Chief Inspector Neil Ralph of Devon and Cornwall Police’s public protection unit told The Herald the operation involved eight other police forces working with intelligence and advanced computer technology.
“We know some of the people who access indecent images of children online go on to abuse children directly and this operation has been focused on preventing this from happening,” he said.
“Targeting offenders who access indecent images of children online influences potential abusers, and their criminal activity, and prevents children becoming victims of sexual abuse.”
DCI Ralph added: “The positions of trust are things where someone might have potential easy access to children, it might be teachers or people who coach children in some capacity.
“The internet is not a safe space for paedophiles to access and view indecent images of children, as their activity leaves a digital footprint, which we will find.
“We have a team of specially trained detectives within our public protection unit who are dedicated to finding and prosecuting paedophiles and are making arrests every day across the force.
“Devon and Cornwall Police will continue to target paedophiles as part of our daily operational activity as we are committed to protecting children and finding people who believe it is acceptable to commit this type of crime.”
DCI Ralph said people who share indecent images sometimes go on to commit more serious crimes.
“The sad fact is that can be a precursor to contact offences,” he said.
“We felt it was really important to target these people before contact offences occurred, to get them to serve a term of imprisonment then go on the sex offenders register.”
Devon and Cornwall Police’s work to target suspected paedophiles and safeguard vulnerable children will continue.