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Sexting, young people and the police: Working towards a common-sense solution

10 Sep 2015

A blog by NPCC Lead for Children and Young People, Deputy Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney

I received an email from my old headmaster last week, who had heard me on the Radio 4 Today programme talking about ‘sexting’. He was empathising with this problem that both schools and the police are struggling with.  I believe the police did not need to be involved in the situation featured at all – but had been called in because a 14 year old boy had ‘sexted’ a girl in his year group.  As a police service, we have committed to the statement that ‘children are children first’ in all our interactions with them. Common sense tells me that we need to allow our young people to make mistakes and learn from them. We need to make sure that we have room within our societal systems, of which policing is one, for mistakes to be made and left behind rather than blighting adult life.

I have been inundated with similar examples from around the country and I am pleased there is a wider public debate. Before I go on, let me revisit the points I made in the media last week:

There are three separate decision points: first, whether to record a crime or not. The Home Office Counting Rules are very clear  - if the school wishes the police to know about any incident, then ‘the police’ are informed and, consequently, a crime must be recorded. No ifs or buts. The rules are clear and we, as a service, lost considerable public confidence over the last couple of years when Police Recorded Crime was challenged. Many forces have moved mountains to improve and we cannot have it both ways. So, I believe the police service should abide by the rules because that is what the public ask for and deserve. But the rules can be changed and this week’s public debate seems to be calling for that.

The second decision point is the whether to investigate the crime and the extent of that investigation. In this case, there was no investigation – perfect. And mum was told – also great. As I speak with colleagues around the UK, I am seeing the erosion of professional conversations – whether dedicated schools officers or within a MASH (Multi-agency safeguarding hub). Partners are not talking to their police colleagues as freely as they once did – is this an unintended consequence of the same rules?

The third decision point comes much later, at the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check. The guidance tells a DBS decision-maker to consider the severity of activity, whether it was a pattern of behaviour, how long ago it was etc, establishing a principle of proportionality of disclosure. I see examples around the country which lead me to believe DBS is not consistently applied – this worries me for today’s young people.

The line between whether a child is a victim or an offender is a blurred one.  The offence that they are committing of making and distributing an indecent image of a child is an offence that was created prior to the smartphone era within which we now live.  It was intended for an adult who created and distributed images of a child, not for peer on peer images.  If the young man was an adult then he could be a victim of revenge porn, but he is not as a child. Worse, if he is groomed by an adult and encouraged to send the photo through, the child may still be an offender on a crime report – an even more clear cut case which questions the wisdom of the current rules.

But let us not forget that the real harm which sexting causes is to the sender as well as the receiver. The embarrassment, bullying, and fear which is instilled when an intimate photo is in the Cloud forever should not be under-estimated. As a society we need to help people understand the value of privacy – the NSPCC and others do great work, but we know so many young people suffer this every day. This is a bigger problem than the police can solve – our role is to reduce crime, much of which means catching the offenders who commit it, and protecting the vulnerable, And young people are vulnerable because of their age – no ifs, or buts.