Assistant Commissioner Hewitt:
There is no doubt that we have been wrestling for some time with a dilemma in exactly the way you describe. Developments in technology have enabled a whole range of offending that previously would still have taken place, but in a very restricted and challenging way.
Consider the issue of indecent images: previously it was difficult for somebody to access indecent images. They had to find their way into very specific websites and undertake a series of acts to get there and do what they did. Indecent imagery is now almost readily available in so many spaces, and this means that far more people are accessing it either deliberately or inadvertently. Equally, there is the technology we use to spot when particular computers are accessing that imagery. We are in a situation in which there is a real volume challenge for us. The legislation point needs to be clear at the outset that doing this is illegal, and in this instance we do not have clarity around the specific issue of upskirting, so we need legislation that clearly says that—in the circumstances described—“This is an illegal act”.
The question then is how we respond, and how the system deals with that illegal act. In the first instance it would require awareness, training and understanding to be shared between police forces so that all officers were aware of the new legislation—as we would do with any new piece of legislation—and so that they understand what their powers are and what needs to be done. Then you get into the use of discretion and how you apply the legislation, as you would under any circumstances. For example, where it involves a 15-year-old and a 15-year-old, we need to think and then apply the usual logical approach that would be applied to whichever outcome you were seeking. The system would need to be able to look at whether certain offences were suitable for a caution or some form of warning. We do not want to be dragging loads of young people into the criminal justice system unnecessarily. With image-based sexual offences, you always have that challenge of trying to understand the level of risk presented by the offender, whether it is the viewing of images or upskirting. Some offenders will do no more than take a photograph or view an image, but some may be contact offenders or be escalating in the nature of the offending, and our challenge is always to have systems and processes in place that allow us to try to identify what the risk level is. Even among those registered sex offenders I spoke about, there are clearly RSOs at the top end who are the highest risk RSOs for whom we have significant control mechanisms, and then others at the lower end, where there is a much lighter level of control.
What you wrap into that, as I said at the very beginning, is what we do in terms of publicity and getting the information out there, not just to the police but to the broader public, about what this legislation says, why it is being done and what it says about what we expect and do not expect. I think that will have a really positive impact. You then broaden that out to all the spaces where this offence might take place, for people to become more aware of it. Looking at the offences we have dealt with most, there are obviously quite a few on transport systems, but they are also in supermarkets, shops and places like that. There is an awareness thing that can go on, and then it really is about dealing proportionately with the offending.
All those things are challenges, but I do not think that any of them take us away from the fact that these acts are illegal—they should be very clearly and specifically illegal. Particularly in this instance, they are also incredible distressing and harmful to the victim, but we have to try to find an ability to operate proportionately, and that gets us into some difficult debates about the images online.