COVID-19 HAS AFFECTED THE CAPACITY TO INVESTIGATE CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE CRIMES

Key findings

/ More than half of the respondents report that the fallout from the pandemic has affected law enforcement capacity to investigate child sexual abuse crime.

/ Nearly half of the respondents report that warrants and court cases have been affected by the pandemic.

/ The prioritisation of child sexual abuse cases has been largely unaffected by the pandemic, however some respondents report reprioritisations.

/ US respondents generally report a bigger effect on law enforcement capacity, whereas Swedish respondents report largely unaffected law enforcement capacity.

Law enforcement’s ability to investigate child sexual abuse (CSA) crimes is dependent on a number of different conditions and factors, such as the possibility to execute search warrants, conduct interviews, and review seized material to secure evidence. In this insight we look at whether the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, with its lockdowns and social restrictions, has impacted law enforcement capacity to investigate CSA crimes.

Effect on capacity

More than half of the respondents reported that the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic affected their capacity to investigate CSA crimes. However, almost as many, four in ten, of the respondents reported that their capacity to investigate CSA crimes had remained unaffected by the pandemic.

WHETHER THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS AFFECTED LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES’ CAPACITY TO INVESTIGATE CSA CRIMES.

Difference between countries

As seen in the previous insights, the results vary between different countries/regions. The answers from the European sample were similar to the overall result (51 percent), whereas the UK numbers were slightly lower (47 percent). A breakout of the US respondents shows that nearly two-thirds reported an impact on their capacity to investigate CSA crimes, whereas just over one quarter of the Swedish respondents reported such an impact.

Several reasons

When asked to elaborate on their answers, the respondents commented that the impact was primarily due to an increase in workload, limited possibilities to conduct investigations when working remotely, limited possibilities to execute search warrants and difficulties in conducting interviews with victims, suspects and witnesses.

Increased workload

More than a quarter of the surveyed police officers reported an increase in workload and/or a reduction in resources as a consequence of the pandemic. Many said that the increased workload was a result of a high inflow of new cases, combined with limited resources. Others commented that their resources have been reduced during the period.

“The volume of work and the lack of resources to tackle this has been a massive factor.”

“More cases to investigate with the same resources.”

“There are more cases and the staffing numbers have not gone up.”

Limitations of remote work

More than one in five of the surveyed police officers reported that their ability to work on CSA cases had been limited due to remote work. The aspect of remote work that most respondents mentioned was that it is not possible to review CSA evidence from home, thus affecting their possibilities to work cases. Several respondents also mentioned lack of collaboration and lack of access to databases and infrastructure as a consequence of remote work.

“Working from home, therefore material being worked on is restricted to non-illegal pictures/non-sexual abuse cases.”

“Cannot work CSAM cases outside of the office.”

“It is difficult to investigate with full capacity. Key factors are lack of collaboration, access to infrastructure etc.”

“Working remotely does limit some functions /databases that are only available in the office.”

Suspended search warrants

One in five police officers reported that suspended or limited execution of search warrants impacted their investigative work. Some reported that only the most urgent warrants, for example those where a child is at risk, or where the suspect is a person of public trust, were executed. The large majority of those who mentioned an impact on search warrants were US respondents.

“My agency is severely limiting our ability to go out in public and to execute search warrants, do interviews, etc.”

“We have only been able to serve search warrants on homes where we know there is a live victim or a person of public trust.”

“Suspended the execution of Search Warrants on Residences.”

Difficulties in conducting interviews

More than one in ten respondents reported that the lockdowns and social restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic affected their ability to conduct interviews. Several mentioned that social distancing made it difficult to go out in public and contact relevant individuals. Some also commented that wearing masks makes it difficult and can be counterproductive during interviews. Others reported that interviews were cancelled more frequently because of COVID-19 – when investigators or interrogators showed symptoms, or when suspects used COVID-19 as an excuse not to be interrogated.

“Agency policies restrict the ability to conduct interviews and knock and talks.”

“National, state and departmental restrictions on contact with individuals make it difficult to interview suspects. Among other things, masks and social distancing are counterproductive to effective interviewing techniques.”

“More interrogations are cancelled when investigators or interrogators show symptoms. More and longer sick leave due to risk of infection.”

Some respondents mentioned that travel restrictions had limited their ability to travel to other regions or countries to interview suspects and victims. This is something that several of the Swedish respondents mentioned specifically.

“We as investigators are not able to travel to the countries were the crime was committed and are therefore not able to interview the victims/children.”

“Cannot travel to interrogate in other countries.”

Effect on case processing time

Many commented that the different fallouts of the pandemic, mentioned above, slowed down processing time for cases. Remote work, slow court processes, difficulties in obtaining and executing search warrants, and a lack of resources, are all examples of factors that slow down investigations.

“Social distancing meaning different processes and workplace locations, creating slower processes.”

“Less people at worksites. More COVID meetings takes time from investigations. Forensic analysis takes longer as people stay home.”

Although most respondents reported slower case processing time, there were exceptions. A few respondents reported that they were able to allocate more time and resources to investigate CSA cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our agency has actually allocated more time and resources to CSAM cases.”

“There has been decrease of sexual crimes against adults what allowed to dedicate much more time to CSAM cases investigations.”

Prioritisation of cases

Nearly three quarters of the surveyed police officers said that the prioritisation of CSA cases within their organisation remained unchanged during the COVID-19 pandemic. An even higher number of Swedish respondent, eight in ten, reported that prioritisation had remained unchanged.

One in five police officers reported that prioritisation of cases had changed during the pandemic. Throughout this report, the UK and the European sample generally answered similar to the whole sample. For most questions, the US respondents reported bigger effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, whereas the Swedish respondents reported fewer effects. However, for this question it is interesting to note that the US and UK respondents answered similar to the overall results, whereas a higher share, one third, of the European respondents reported an effect on prioritisation of CSA crime. However, there are no significant differences in the comments from the European sample, that could further explain this difference.

WHETHER THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS AFFECTED HOW INVESTIGATIONS INTO CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE CRIMES HAVE BEEN PRIORITISED.

Effects of change in prioritisation

The respondents who reported a change in how CSA crimes had been prioritised during the pandemic commented that cases and individuals identified as high- risk were being prioritised, whereas those considered lower risk had to wait. Others commented that crimes concerning CSA had been given lower priority and that resources had been reassigned to other types of crime and tasks.

“Priority is now children at risk, as opposed to only an indication that the offender is possessing/distributing.”

“We are only going after the egregious cases that are either a person in authority school teacher, counsellor etc.”

“Our Child Exploitation Unit members were reassigned to assist with protests, helping out the money laundering units and so forth. Teamwork is great amongst the agency, but it felt like our Child Exploitation cases were put to the back of the line in regards to importance.”

“Due to the caseload we have to prioritise to higher extent than before, due to the fact that more violent crimes are being committed which decreases the amount of investigative time we can spend on investigating sexual crimes against children.”

More than half of the respondents who reported a change in prioritisation, also reported that some CSA cases risk not being investigated as an effect of this development.

WHETHER A CHANGE IN PRIORITIES DURING COVID-19 RISK LEADING TO SOME TYPES OF CRIMES AGAINST CHILDREN NOT BEING INVESTIGATED.

Cases not investigated

According to the surveyed police officers, the cases that were considered lower risk, and therefore might not be investigated, were primarily different types of possession and distribution cases. This included cases with lower volumes of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), cases with victims who were older or age-indeterminate, and cases with known offenders without access to children, etc.

The respondents also mentioned that less severe grooming cases and cases involving voluntarily self-produced material, especially when sent between juveniles, were classified as lower risk. Low risk or single file NCMEC referrals where also specified by a few respondents.

“Possession and distribution of CSAM.”

“Single image NCMEC reports and teens sending images to other teens and getting exploited. There is no time to investigate AND no legal consequences for exploiting yourself or others if you are a juvenile.”

“Hands on offenses will be investigated but distribution or possession of CSAM were put on hold.”

A few respondents also highlighted the potential risks associated with not investigating possession and distribution cases.

“Predominance of contact offending is found on possession/distribution cases – lack of capacity to service these means children are at risk.”

Prioritised cases

The cases that were instead given priority, according to the surveyed police officers, were primarily hands-on CSA cases, and cases concerning offenders with access to children or in a position of public trust. More than half of the respondents commented that contact offences or cases where a child is at risk of hands-on abuse, were being prioritised. Others reported that priority was instead given to other types of crime, such as murder, counter terrorism and narcotics.

“Priority is given where children are at risk/known to be in a residence.”

“Any case where surveillance determines a child is in the home. Any case where a person of public trust resides in the home.”

“Major crimes investigation such as murder, attempted murder, extortion etc.”

Effects on warrants

More than one-third of the respondents reported that the COVID-19 pandemic affected which warrants were processed during the period. A breakdown into countries/regions showed that the UK and the European sample reflected the overall results. However, nearly half of the US respondents answered that processed warrants had been affected, whereas only one in ten of the Swedish respondents answered the same.

It is relevant to note, however, that nearly half of the US respondents also reported that warrants had not been affected, and very few said that they don’t know. The respondents from the other samples answered “don’t know” to a much higher degree.

WHETHER COVID-19 HAS AFFECTED WHICH WARRANTS HAVE BEEN PROCESSED.

When asked to elaborate on how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected which warrants were processed, the majority said that they had only been able to execute the most urgent search warrants for high priority cases. As described above, these are primarily where a child is at risk, or where the suspect is a person of public trust.

“Only emergent situations for life or integrity were considered in planning house searches and arrests.”

“No execution of search warrants for possession of CSA material at the moment. Execution only in high priority cases.”

“My agency only allowed for the service of search warrants if there was an articulable reason to believe a child was in danger.”

While several of the respondents mentioned that the process of obtaining search warrants had slowed down as a result of limited court capacity, some reported new and improved processes as a result of the same.

“This has been a big benefit to us in ease of obtaining warrants which are now being conducted online. This was something the courts in our area were not prepared to engage in at all pre-COVID and full days could be wasted at courts waiting to have a warrant heard.”

“More telephonic approvals by judges and prosecutors, but that has increased efficiency.”

Effects on court cases

Nearly half of the respondents also reported a change in which court cases had been processed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The share of US respondents who reported an effect on court processes were, as with many of the other questions, even higher; six in ten. This was also reflected in the comments, with more US respondents focusing on court closures and delays in their comments than respondents from the other samples.

Only one in ten of the Swedish respondents reported an effect on court processes as a result of the pandemic. Worth noticing is, however, that considerably more respondents from this sample answered ”don’t know”, compared to the others. The result from the UK respondents and European sample reflects the overall result.

WHETHER COVID-19 HAS AFFECTED WHICH COURT CASES HAVE BEEN PROCESSED.

Delayed court hearings

More than half of the respondents who reported an effect on court cases, commented that court hearings and trials had been either delayed or suspended as a result of reduced court capacity during the pandemic. Some respondents said that, as a result of this, backlogs were building up and trial dates were pushed into the future.

“Trial courts have been closed, so there has been a delay in prosecutions”.

“For several months, the courts were closed and no cases were heard. Now that they are back open, there is a backlog of cases.”

“Courts are backlogged because of restrictions due to COVID-19.”

Suspects getting probation or bail

Several respondents also reported that offenders were getting probation or bail instead of being incarcerated, as a consequence of congested courts, closed courts or heavily reduced court hours.

“Limited grand jury time, courts down to 1 or 2 duty judges per day, quicker pleas and sentences for what the courts deem low level child exploitation offenders, who are not getting sentenced to jail time and instead are receiving probation.”

“There are no trials for the foreseeable future so there is no reason to plea cases without trial. Offenders are being released pending trials being reinstated in 2021.”

Only high-priority cases

Nearly one in five of the surveyed police officers reported that courts had to prioritise more between cases, and that only those considered high priority were being handled. Some mention that only cases where arrests had been made were being processed.

“Only those cases were processed that had arrested perpetrators, the other cases were suspended.”

“District court sessions are all delayed. Now when the sessions have started again, only the most urgent cases are handled”

“High priority cases take precedence.”

Consequences

The respondents who reported an impact on warrants and court cases, commented that the consequences of warrants not being processed and courts not processing some types of cases, constitutes a risk of offenders going undetected or being able to continue offending, and victims being left in abusive environments. They also answered that there is a risk of evidence being destroyed or becoming invalid, and a backlog being built up in both court processes and law enforcement investigations.

Victims left in abusive environments

One quarter of the police officers who commented on the question, said that there is a risk of offenders either going undetected or being able to continue to abuse victims, as a consequence of the effects on the judicial system. One in five respondents highlighted a risk that this may result in victims being left in abusive environments.

“Offenders are being allowed to continue criminal activities and offences against children.”

“The risk that child victims are left in an abusive environment.”

“In worst case scenarios the suspect can continue to abuse children.”

“Warrants are being progressed digitally, but a delay would prevent early safeguarding within the suspect’s family and early recovery of evidence.”

A number of respondents specifically commented that delays and down prioritisation of possession, receipt and distribution cases may increase the risk of hands-on offending.

“Extra case backgrounds are being conducted to determine potentials for hands on offenders. Fear that non-hands on offenders will be more likely to become hands on offenders without diligent enforcement.”

“The probable cause for the warrant is only a piece of information and not indicative of full behavior, many big cases have started with simple possession.”

Destroyed or invalid evidence

Other respondents mentioned a potential risk of evidence being destroyed or becoming invalid, or evidence becoming old and difficult to investigate and verify.

“Further potential harm to victims. Offenders absconding. Potential evidence being destroyed by alleged offenders.”

“Some criminal case’s cause of action may date.”

“Potentially, evidence could be lost. If the IP logs or other valuable data is deleted due to a standard schedule and we are late to address the case then we may not have the records we need to determine the suspects identity and location.”

“Longer turnaround times and less valid actionable information.”

“Cases are losing the urgency and evidence.”

Risk of backlogs

One in five of the police officers who commented on the question, also reported a risk of backlogs, for both courts and law enforcement, as warrants were not being processed, court hours limited, and cases were being pushed back.

“Workload is backing up and will require a considerable amount of work at a later date to catch up.”

“Everything is being delayed creating a jam, which is going to have to be fixed down the road.”

“Massive backlog incoming for everyone, cases will be rushed and things will be missed putting children at higher risk.”

“A huge backlog after lockdown.”

Comment to insight 5

More results from the NetClean Report 2020