When it comes to paedophile activity in online spaces, the only thing that tends to change is that their numbers continue to increase. I believe that one of the contributing factors to this is the lack of real deterrence; too few police officers to deal with the tidal wave of online offending.
There is no doubt in my mind that the growth in unregulated or 'vigilante' activity is in no small measure, down to the frustration many people feel when they see our children harmed, and so few predators caught and held to account. In 2014 'Hunters' accounted for 11% of the cases successfully prosecuted at court. Last year that number rose to 44%. Proof, if it were needed, that you do not need to be a police officer to make a difference.
The really shocking figure from the BBC Freedom of Information (FOI) request however, is found in the total number of convictions for grooming a child to meet for sex. According to the FOI the police and Paedophile Hunters combined achieved only 259 convictions.
Some may attempt to defend that number by including the work against offenders who download images, but that is investigated in a different way. In my opinion the only legitimate comparison between these crime types is the equally disappointing number of offenders caught in each category. The Chief Constable of Norfolk Simon Bailey set out the scale of the problem last year when he told us that up to 100,000 UK IP addresses are downloading indecent images; of someone's child everyday.
In order to move forward we must stop repeating the rhetoric that you can do more with less in policing, it's not right and unfair to the few officers working against huge odds. We must also stop letting those in power hide behind the blanket of austerity.
I am sure that vigilantes are not the answer.
Whilst most are well meaning, a few are self-serving, some may even have criminal records and are therefore unsuitable for such a role. However, they have all shown us that you don't need to be a police officer to catch a predator. You should however be vetted, trained and authorised to work within the criminal justice system. So what is the answer? Special Constables trained as Digital Detectives.
Special Constables, uniformed citizen volunteers walk the streets of our towns and villages every week.
Their presence deters offenders, makes people safer and critically makes them feel safer. There is absolutely no reason they cannot patrol the online spaces. These volunteer citizens can be trained to seek out these abusers, to identify, locate and lure them to a place where the police arrest them.
We sometimes see the very best of people in the worst of times and communities across the UK are filled with good, in fact great, decent people. People who care enough to make a difference. Now is the time to call up that citizen's army; vet, train and equip them to support the police.
It is time to turn the tables. If every force recruited only 25 volunteers we could launch a credible counter offensive with over a 1,000 Special Constables operating undercover as digital detectives. Such reinforcements would have the potential to make a real impact by delivering a real deterrent.
And here is the key, they are volunteers; they are absolutely free. So ask yourself this, can we afford to ignore this scheme?
Jim Gamble is CEO of specialist safeguarding company INEQE. and the former CEO of CEOP