Avon and Somerset Police have revealed fears that the plague of offenders aiming to “groom” children for sexual exploitation is expected to worsen across the region.
The warning to parents, grandparents and teachers comes as the force – which is now monitoring 2,000 sex offenders in its area – made a series of raids as part of a crackdown against child abuse.
As police continued a two-week hunt for a fugitive sex offender who may be hiding in Hartcliffe, the raids were carried out at addresses in Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Somerset as police warned sex offenders, “we’re coming to get you”.
A police spokesman said: “We’ve executed a series of warrants across the force area as part of an ongoing operation to target online child abuse. Searches of the properties then led to a significant number of digital equipment being seized.
“The activity comes after we received intelligence that devices at the addresses may have been used to download or share indecent images of children or in connection with grooming offences.”
Detective Inspector Steve Cartlidge, of the Internet Child Abuse Team, added: “Our aim is to protect children and our message to anyone involved in online child abuse is that we are actively looking for you and we will come after you.
“Officers from our Internet Child Abuse Team, Operational Support department, Digital Investigations Team and Digital Forensic Unit last week intensified our activity to find those involved in such criminality.
“We will have to wait for the seized equipment to be forensically examined first before any action is taken against any individual but I am confident the action we took last week has made our communities safer.”
The action comes as police step up targeting of sex offenders in the wake of criticism by a serious case review of Operation Brooke, which found that officers were slow to spot that girls as young as 11 were being exploited by a gang of Somali men in Bristol, 13 of whom were jailed for a total of 116 years.
But the Avon and Somerset force has warned that sex grooming now represents the “highest risk” to children in the area and it fears that the number of incidents will rise.
Child sexual exploitation involves young people under the age of 18 who are manipulated or coerced into a sexual relationship or activity by an adult or other young person. They may be offered something in return for performing sexual acts such as alcohol, cigarettes, mobile phones, gifts, money or love.
The victims can be groomed or exploited anywhere including parks, shopping centres, on public transport, food outlets, hotels, hos- tels, pubs and clubs.
“Child Sexual Exploitation still represents the highest graded risk in Avon and Somerset,” said the police.
“Our use of sophisticated, predictive analysis warns us to expect a continuing increase in the number of victims and offenders.
“Child abuse is still largely hidden due to familial and online offending and therefore true levels of demand are not known but we are seeing an increasing number of children who are at risk of abuse and neglect being identified and subject to child protection plans.”
The force has also revealed that the number of known sex offenders in the region has been rising for 10 years and at the last count there was almost 2,000.
“By May 2017, we had 1,926 registered sexual offenders in our area. The numbers have been increasing 10 per cent per annum since 2007,” the police revealed.
The force is asking for help from the public in catching a sex offender who is thought to be on the run in Bristol.
“We’re appealing for the public’s help to find wanted man Stephen James Powell. The 36-year-old Bristol man is wanted on a warrant issued by Bristol Crown Court,” said a spokesman.
“Powell has been convicted of a number of sex offences but failed to appear at court for both his trial and sentencing during which he was jailed for eight years. He is de- scribed as white, 5ft 10ins tall, of slim build with brown eyes and a shaved head. He is believed to be in Bristol and has specific links to the Hartcliffe area of the city.”
Meanwhile, the police have issued signs of child sexual exploitation that they want parents, grandparents and teachers to watch for – and to ring 999 if they spot them.
- Going missing for periods of time or regularly returning home late
- Regularly missing school or not taking part in education
- Receiving expensive gifts and not being able to explain how they came by them
- Having older boyfriends or girlfriends
- Bruises, marks on the body, suffering from sexually transmitted infections, drug and alcohol misuse, self-harming
- Associating with other young people involved in exploitation
- Mood swings or changes in emotional well-being, becoming secretive, defensive or aggressive when asked about their personal life
- Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour
D.I. Cartlidge added: “If any member of the public has concerns about online grooming or abuse, they should report them to us via 101, to CEOP at www.ceop.police.uk, or to Crime-stoppers. If you think a child is at immediate risk of harm call 999.
“We are committed to tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse in all its forms but it can take us some time to develop the intelligence we receive and people shouldn’t assume that because they don’t see immediate results, that it isn’t being acted upon.”