Unit's success is jailing offenders and preventing future victims
THE office of the child exploitation unit is fairly anonymous and just like any other – desks, chairs, computers and paperwork.
The signs on the walls and doors – that images of child sexual abuse may be on screen – are an ever-present reminder that it is not.
It is hard to imagine why any officer, parent or not, would volunteer to work in this department. Yet most of the eight detectives on the unit, which has been led by Detective Inspector Simon Snell since 2002, have been here for years.
"In those days child protection certainly wasn't a man's world," Mr Snell says. "It was viewed by many people in the service as being pink and fluffy.
"Why do men who have been on murder teams want to get involved in child protection?
"In the years that have gone by some of the cases that we have had, I wouldn't want to work anywhere else – it is a brilliant place to work."
Mr Snell arrived in the job with no background in child protection, describing himself as a "general duties CID officer".
With a young family at the time, he admitted he was "nervous" about what he would be exposed to and the personal toll it might take.
"The main impact I have always found difficult, the thing that affects me more than anything else is seeing the destruction these offenders cause to families," he says.
"There is real grief in the family when the partner finds out that this is what they have been doing, particularly when it has led on to contact sexual abuse, which it often does. The fallout from that is absolutely unbelievable."
The child exploitation unit, formerly known as the hi-tech crime unit, was set up following the launch of a national campaign against internet paedophiles titled Operation Ore.
Sparked by the discovery in the United States of a multi-million-dollar internet site selling images of child abuse, it led to thousands of arrests around the world, including more than 100 in Devon and Cornwall.
"It was the first really big case involving the internet. The internet had been running for a long time but it was the first job where the internet was a major factor – i.e. people could buy an image from a server based in the States when they were living in Devon and Cornwall. That was mind-blowing.
"I think the force had the insight then to think this is something we need to address, so they set up the hi-tech crime unit, which at the time was integrated with the paedophile unit and the wider internet crime unit."
Like many large organisations, he said, police forces were "slow on the uptake" in recognising the risks posed by online criminals, although Devon and Cornwall Police were and are "in a better position than most".
He said: "I think the technology of the internet grew so quickly that I don't think anybody kept up with it.
"I think all organisations were guilty to a certain extent of burying their heads in the sand – that it was all going to go away.
"That has happened to parents somewhat as well. Because they don't understand the technology, they bury their heads in the sand.
"We were giving out the message seven or eight years ago for parents not to allow their children to connect to the internet in their bedrooms and bring it down into the house in public view.
"That message is now almost irrelevant because children have the internet in front of them on their phones."
Mr Snell said the unit's work had increased "rapidly" with demands for computer and mobile phone analysis now being central to a host of criminal investigations.
"The growth in online child sex abuse cases and general online crime has gone hand in hand with the growth of the internet," he says. "Everybody's life now is on the internet and, of course, criminality has followed that as well.
"Grooming is a huge issue. We have seen quite an increase in children who are being conned to do sexual acts to themselves and being recorded doing that.
"It is thankfully rare but there are still some children who will meet people online and then go and meet them offline for sexual purposes.
"On the internet side of things, identity theft still remains a huge issue, phishing attacks – two out of ten people that receive a phishing e-mail will disclose their account details and their PIN.
"That remains a big issue and it is not always, as you might think, vulnerable people who are taken in by it.
"Add to that the elderly in our communities, the distraction burglaries that we deal with where they have been conned out of their life savings – that happens on the internet as well.
"It's important to say that 99.9 per cent of the stuff that goes on, on the internet is good. For children, the research capabilities and being able to talk to people is great but it does come with risks."
It seems almost impossible that officers on the unit – who have to wade through grotesque still images and videos of abuse – can achieve any real sense of job satisfaction.
But Mr Snell says they had to take solace in protecting future possible victims and jailing offenders rather than dwell on the abuse that had happened.
"Here, we have always said that if anyone walks into this office and says they have had enough of looking at these images then I can guarantee they will be able to move," he says.
"It is something you have to be able to deal with here.
"We do link into counselling but the best support is actually the team here. We've all worked in this unit for a long, long time, we know each other and when times are bad we tend to wrap around each other."
He adds: "You have got to be a certain type of detective to be able to do this job.
"When you have to watch the rape of a child for 40-50 minutes, it focuses the mind because you know you are going to put some bad people away.
The abuse has happened, you can't change that, but you can have an impact by making sure it doesn't happen again.
"There are two types of job satisfaction – there is the fact that you have put somebody bad away for many years, then there is also the knowledge that you have safeguarded lots of children.
"That is where I have changed my focus over the ten years that I have been here. I came in as a general duties CID officer and my emphasis then was on the perpetrators and the investigation, not anything else.
"Now I think the police service has recognised that you can't just stop there, safeguarding is huge, it has got to be the priority."