Policing Adult Initiated Online Child Sex Offenders: An Exploration and Analysis of Police Officers Knowledge and Training Regarding the Digital Platf

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of Computer Science


My study explores what is known about the social media and digital knowledge and training of police officers in England and Wales investigating adult-initiated online sexual crimes against children. In addition, my PhD will also focus on the technology and methods used by the offenders to access indecent images of children and industry responses. The rationale for the project relates to the minimal amount of qualitative studies regarding this subject, as most do not focus on police officers' training and knowledge regarding online sex crimes against children. In addition, the methods choices of digital platforms and social media used by offenders are often overlooked within research.

Therefore, it is important to fully explore this subject to identify the gaps within the knowledge and offending behaviours. My study uses a convergent mixed methods approach, using qualitative interviews and secondary data from the Internet Watch Foundation. in design and has involved 12 semi-structured interviews with police officers and civilian investigators from a large UK police force. The findings so far highlighted several new and important concerns relating to investigating online sexual crimes against children. Also, I have recently completed a review of the literature regarding police officers' knowledge and training relating to online sexual crimes against children, which will be submitted for publication.

I have also completed a needs assessment with officers from a large UK police force which suggested improvements to working practice, collaboration with other criminal justice organisations and welfare concerns. This report will later be submitted for publication. Finally, It is envisaged that the results from my study will assist criminal justice agencies, health care professionals and charities to better understand the digital platforms and social media sites used by offenders with a view of increasing recidivism and preventing offending behaviour.

Planned Impact

We will collaborate with over 40 partners drawn from across FMCG and Food; Creative Industries; Health and Wellbeing; Smart Mobility; Finance; Enabling technologies; and Policy, Law and Society. These will benefit from engagement with our CDT through the following established mechanisms:

- Training multi-disciplinary leaders. Our partners will benefit from being able to recruit highly skilled individuals who are able to work across technologies, methods and sectors and in multi-disciplinary teams. We will deliver at least 65 skilled PhD graduates into the Digital Economy.

- Internships. Each Horizon student undertakes at least one industry internship or exchange at an external partner. These internships have a benefit to the student in developing their appreciation of the relevance of their PhD to the external societal and industrial context, and have a benefit to the external partner through engagement with our students and their multidisciplinary skill sets combined with an ability to help innovate new ideas and approaches with minimal long-term risk. Internships are a compulsory part of our programme, taking place in the summer of the first year. We will deliver at least 65 internships with partners.

- Industry-led challenge projects. Each student participates in an industry-led group project in their second year. Our partners benefit from being able to commission focused research projects to help them answer a challenge that they could not normally fund from their core resources. We will deliver at least 15 such projects (3 a year) throughout the lifetime of the CDT.

- Industry-relevant PhD projects. Each student delivers a PhD thesis project in collaboration with at least one external partner who benefits from being able to engage in longer-term and deeper research that they would not normally be able to undertake, especially for those who do not have their own dedicated R&D labs. We will deliver at least 65 such PhDs over the lifetime of this CDT renewal.

- Public engagement. All students receive training in public engagement and learn to communicate their findings through press releases, media coverage.

This proposal introduces two new impact channels in order to further the impact of our students' work and help widen our network of partners.

- The Horizon Impact Fund. Final year students can apply for support to undertake short impact projects. This benefits industry partners, public and third sector partners, academic partners and the wider public benefit from targeted activities that deepen the impact of individual students' PhD work. This will support activities such as developing plans for spin-outs and commercialization; establishing an IP position; preparing and documenting open-source software or datasets; and developing tourable public experiences.

- ORBIT as an impact partner for RRI. Students will embed findings and methods for Responsible Research Innovation into the national training programme that is delivered by ORBIT, the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT (www.orbit-rri.org). Through our direct partnership with ORBIT all Horizon CDT students will be encouraged to write up their experience of RRI as contributions to ORBIT so as to ensure that their PhD research will not only gain visibility but also inform future RRI training and education. PhD projects that are predominantly in the area of RRI are expected to contribute to new training modules, online tools or other ORBIT services.

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S023305/1 01/10/2019 31/03/2028
2274241 Studentship EP/S023305/1 01/10/2019 30/12/2023 Michael Harmson
Description So far, I have adressed a gap within current knowledge which explores the digital and social media knowledge of police officers who investigate online sexual crimes against children. Findings so far would suggest that police officers who work in adult initated online sexual crimes against children receive no specialised training other than being a detective. Officers "learn as they go along" or "learn from colleagues". Other findings suggest that knowledge of social media and digital platforms vary between some officers. Some officers are very well informed, while some have basic knowledge of digital platforms. These officers were desribed by some colleauges as "technophobes". Age and experience of using digital platforms was not significant as all particpants were over 35 years of age. Also, the findings suggest that police officers who work in online sexual crimes investigation should have professional accrediation, similar to financial investigators.
Exploitation Route The research outcomes will speak to both academic and criminal justice agencies, including the police. It is envisaged that the final research outcomes will have an impact on policy and procedure within criminal justice organisations relating to improvements to training and development. The research outcomes will also add to our academic knowledge of what we know about police training and development relating to online sexual crimes investigation.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Some of the findings within the current research have been used to create a needs assessment for online sexual crimes investigators. These needs include access to better equipment, welfare issues, an increase in staff, better quality training, and collaboration with other industry partners.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Needs Assessment on a major UK police Force.
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to new or improved professional practice
Impact As a result of my assessment, changes were implemented, and officers now have better access to mental health support and well-being. This ensures officers are better supported and can continue to work effectively while serving the public. Also, officers can now avail of new devices, which enabled them to work smarter and more efficiently, freeing up valuable time and resources.
Description An Assement of Needs for Greater Manchester Police Online Sexual Crimes Investigation Unit 
Organisation Greater Manchester Police
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution As a part of my original research regarding understanding the digital and social media knowledge of police officers, I conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with serving police officers and staff. During the analysis of the data, some themes were used to conduct a needs assessment of online sexual investigations within the Greater Manchester Police. These needs included welfare issues, limitations to the grading of indecent images, collaboration with the National Crime Agency, Staffing levels, work satisfaction and equipment needs.
Collaborator Contribution Greater Manchester Police have permitted access to participants and their time and suitable locations.
Impact I presented the findings to senior leadership within Greater Manchester Police Online Sexual Crimes Unit in September 2021. As a result, the needs identified within my study were noted and some recommendations were implemented. The recommendations implemented included improved welfare strategies for officers and staff, the purchase of new equipment including laptops, and the recruitment of more staff.
Start Year 2020
Description On the 17th February, 2023, I presented some of my findings to a cohort of 20 PhD candidates held by The Alan Turing Institute at the British Library in London. The purpose was for PhD students across the country to present findings of their work so far and an opportunity to network and share information and ideas. Twenty PhD candidates were presented from various universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, Univerity of Endinburgough and others. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact On 17th Feb 2023, I was invited to the Alan Turing Institute at the British Library in London to present my research findings to over 20 other PhD candidates from across the UK. The audience was primarily made up of computer scientists from various universities, including Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College, London and the University of Edinburgh. The presentation, including my own, opened up debate and discussion about the various areas of interest. My presentation opened up quite a lot of debate as the subject matter, online sexual harms investigation, was novel within the cohort. As a result, I made lots of valuable connections within the computer science fraternity. I was also invited back to another conference at the Institute on the 27th Feb relating to the use of AI in offender management and sentencing. I was invited to this conference due to my expertise in online offending behaviour, as my experience and knowledge would 'open up debate' on this subject.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023