Chief Superintendent Jason Harwin acknowledged officers were currently involved in “live investigations” but said recent suggestions that there were at least 300 victims in Rotherham were “wrong”.
Mr Harwin said the claims played into offenders’ hands by undermining the community’s confidence in reporting grooming to police and said the actual number of victims was in “low double figures”.
Senior officers at the South Yorkshire force said they were “frustrated” by recent reports which claimed police and council officers in Rotherham turned a “blind eye” to co-ordinated sex attacks by Asian men.
Mr Harwin, the force’s commander for the Rotherham district, denied the issue was unique to the town and said: “Any suggestion that we are reluctant to investigate such allegations is not true.
“We can’t go into individual cases, but the issue around 300 individuals being identified as being abused is wrong.
“One of the areas of work we do is early identification, which involves understanding the characteristics of individuals which make them more vulnerable to be exposed to such offences.
“The 300 people who have been spoken about are individuals who have been identified as being more vulnerable to being exposed to sexual exploitation, not victims.”
Both police and council officials have refuted claims that Rotherham has a higher than average number of grooming cases and said it was recognised nationally for “good practice” in dealing with the issue.
Mr Harwin warned that sustained criticism of the police based on “erroneous” information would lead to people keeping their concerns to themselves leaving victims to suffer.
He added: “What I would not want is for all the work done by dedicated staff in keeping young people safe to be lost because of reports which have not presented a full and accurate picture.
“Yes, we have had high-profile cases in South Yorkshire involving Asian males but the important thing is to make sure there is no hidden crime, so if people have concerns they need to report it.
“It’s a frustration for us because potentially all the work we have done over the years to get confidence and trust could potentially have been destroyed.”
Rotherham’s MP Denis MacShane has called for an full independent inquiry into child sex exploitation, including what he has described as the “cultural roots of the problem.”
Mr MacShane has called on police, council officials and Asian leaders to abandon their “unwillingness”to accept the reality that Asian men were involved and help tackle the problem.
But Mr Harwin denied that there was any reluctance to talk about or investigate such crimes because of concerns about stirring up racial tension.
He pointed to a series of convictions in 2010 in which five Asian men were sentenced to a total of 32-and-a-half years in prison and said: “This is not about race or religion, it is about individuals who live in our communities who are targeting vulnerable people, and committing offences.”