Undercover police officers could spy on suspected paedophile rings in a new offensive aimed at stopping Yorkshire children being groomed for sex.
The covert tactic, normally used to catch gangsters and drug-dealing networks, is being considered by West Yorkshire Police as it strives to get tougher on child exploitation.
The force was criticised last month for failing to secure prosecutions in cases of girls as young as 12 who were allegedly groomed for abuse in Bradford, Keighley and Leeds.
But West Yorkshire Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison said yesterday that it had “upped the ante” in its war on sexual predators.
Cases are to be investigated by the force’s Crime Division, which takes on inquiries into serious and organised crime.
Sir Norman said: “I have asked Crime Division to consider the deployment of tactics – surveillance, technical monitoring and disruption tactics – normally deployed against crime groups. For that is what this exploitation amounts to – organised criminality.”
The Chief Constable added that he also wanted to involve the Crimestoppers charity, which enables witnesses to report crimes anonymously.
He said investigating child grooming cases was difficult because victims often viewed their abusers as a “place of sanctuary, care and affection”.
“There is a paradoxical obstacle that stands in the way of addressing and resolving these issues,” he added. “Very often the young girls involved view those doing the exploiting as ‘boyfriends’ and they are reluctant to provide the evidence that is necessary to gain police convictions”.
Sir Norman described as “ludicrous” suggestions that the force had been reluctant to investigate grooming because some of the perpetrators of Asian origin.
He suggested that few offenders had been charged with grooming because they could be sent to prison for other serious offences, such as rape and assault, which were often easier to prove.
“There are cases of successful prosecution in the Bradford and Kirklees districts,” he said. “In these cases Asian men have been convicted of specific offences of sexual assault and rape and sentenced to imprisonment.”
The Chief Constable called on councils and other organisations to become “more proactive” in spotting children at risk.
He said 104 vulnerable children, including some in care, were being monitored in West Yorkshire and suspects had been flagged up on the force’s intelligence system so they could be watched.
West Yorkshire Police Authority member Sheila Saunders said grooming was an issue of “complexity” and police were not alone in having a part to play tackling it.
She said that, although the problem had been known about for some time, it had taken 15 years to come to the “top of the food chain” to be openly discussed.
“Only 40 per cent of the children are in care,” she added, “so the problem is really complicated and it needs a multi-agency response.”
The use of undercover tactics was welcomed by Gillian Gibbons, chief executive of the Leeds-based Coalition for the Removal of Pimping (CROP), which has worked closely with the Government in drawing up a national action plan to tackle the problem.
She said: “This is a tremendous commitment at a time which we know is very challenging with cutbacks to the public purse.
“Anything that tries to protect the children that are being exploited is welcomed by CROP.
“It is very important to work with the families, as well as deploying the covert tactics, because the families have a lot of information which is helpful to the police about what is going on with their children.
“Very often, the children and young people themselves find it very difficult to discuss what is happening to them.
“They can feel very engaged with the perpetrator and don’t want to be disloyal to them.
“They also don’t want to say anything which might result in violence against them or their families.”