50 arrests in NI online abuse images probe in past year, say police
A specialist police team investigating the most serious and complex cases of online child abuse images has arrested 50 suspects in Northern Ireland in the past year, the PSNI has said.
The arrests were linked to almost 70 search operations.
Evidence gathered by detectives has so far resulted in 37 individuals being charged.
The figures were released by the PSNI as it granted access to the work of the Child Internet Protection Team (CIPT).
The team deals with high-end child abuse - images and videos of children being abused online.
Most sex abuse cases in the region are investigated by public protection units across the PSNI's districts.
'Very dangerous offenders'
The CIPT only gets involved when the images involved cross a high-level grading threshold or if there is an international dimension to the crime.
Temporary detective superintendent in the PSNI's serious crime branch, Rachel Shields, is also in charge of the CIPT. She said online child abuse is a serious issue in Northern Ireland.
"Northern Ireland doesn't escape," she said. "There is this perception that this sort of child abuse goes on elsewhere, not in Northern Ireland, but we do have very dangerous offenders.
"These are the most complex cases. It is important to realise that in the virtual world, in the cyber world there are no borders and no boundaries and this would be across a global scale, an international scale in terms of the abuse online that this team would deal with."
Ms Shields said it was important that parents were aware of their children's online activity.
"Know what your children are doing online, know who they are talking to, who is talking to them online," she said.
She added: "You wouldn't release your child to go and walk the streets of Belfast unsupervised at the age of 10, 11, 12 or younger, yet a lot of people are leaving their kids online unsupervised."
Ms Shields stressed the global nature of the unit's work, and said one recent case triggered 119 separate follow-up investigations by forces outside Northern Ireland.
She also said offenders caught by the team ranged from 16 to 70 years of age, were predominantly male and covered a wide spectrum of society.
In a warning to paedophiles, the senior officer said: "The message is very clear - we are watching you online.
"You leave a digital footprint when you are downloading, viewing, making indecent images of children and we have the capacity, capability and determination to catch you and bring you to justice."