Avon & Somerset Police has bolstered its “knackered” team tackling perverts who watch online child abuse amid growing numbers of cases and criticism from a government watchdog.

A report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary 12 months ago said the force needed to improve how it enforces the law against offenders accessing indecent images of children.

The PEEL report, which stands for police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy, found the constabulary was “not routinely applying for warrants to secure entry into premises being used by suspects” who download sick pornography involving youngsters.

It said the force was also “not routinely using powers of arrest to detain and question these individuals, relying instead on voluntary attendance to the police station”.

The report said: “The constabulary should re-evaluate this approach.

“It should be more proactive in the use of warrants to secure entry to premises so that evidence can be secured at the earliest opportunity, arrest should also be considered in these cases in order for bail conditions to be applied where appropriate, which adds a further level of protection to potential victims.”

Avon & Somerset Deputy Chief Constable Jon Reilly told a monthly scrutiny meeting chaired in public  by Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) Mark Shelford that the internet child abuse team (ICAT), dedicated to targeting the offenders, had expanded and “considerably improved” how it worked.

He said the unit was “perpetrator focused” and took prompt enforcement action on new referrals.

These come in from the National Crime Agency, the regional organised crime unit and a US charity-run programme called the Child Protection System, which monitor the flow of information across the web and raise the alarm over child abuse images, linking them to the recipient’s IP address.

DCC Reilly said: “What’s clear is that demand within that ICAT team has sadly been increasing year on year as we get more and more referrals in but we’re confident that the changes we’ve made put us in the best position to continue to be effective in this space.

“Because of that continued demand we’ve completed a comprehensive review of our working practices and made some really important changes to improve our capabilities in this area.

“That included creating more efficient internal systems and processes but also bringing in fresh leadership with the introduction of a new detective inspector as well as uplifting the ICAT team by an additional sergeant and six members of staff because of the volume of work that’s coming in.”

He said the force continued to explore innovative approaches and had introduced a new fast-track way of submitting files to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to obtain control orders on low-risk offenders who made early admissions rather than going through lengthy court cases.

DCC Reilly told the PCC performance and accountability board on Wednesday, March 13, that a streamlined way for evidence to be delivered to the CPS from the scene of an offence was being developed to speed up the process.

He said police chiefs had weekly meetings with ICAT staff to agree what work was allocated, including all high-risk cases, and prioritising enforcement.

DCC Reilly said: “Furthermore we are looking across the organisation using specialist search resources to search suspects’ homes, allowing the ICAT team to use their specialist investigative powers where they are really needed.”

He said the team worked with the constabulary’s data forensics unit to ensure there were no delays in securing evidence from devices seized from homes.

“In the last 28 days we’ve received 18 new cases and made 26 arrests, so we are really proud of the progress we’re making,” he said.

“We are committed to sustaining it and we can be really confident moving forward that these perpetrator-focused teams will continue to improve this enforcement activity, which is a really critical area of business to prevent harm to children.”

Mr Shelford said: “I met some of the team last night who were knackered, so how do we make sure that the constabulary put their arms around these people who are having to face these disgusting images on a daily basis?”

DCC Reilly replied: “It’s really important that we do recognise the fantastic work that they do – the necessary but horrible work.

“We are really aware of the pressures that sit within our team. We’ve enhanced our occupational health unit.

“For many years now they are part of a mandatory psychological support process.

“We proactively speak with those officers to ensure that their mental health is right and that they are fit to carry on with their work.

“But it is really important that we wrap our arms around these teams and ensure that if they need to move into another area of business, they can, but they are very committed, professional and dedicated members of staff and it is important that we recognise that they are making a difference to the community.”