ONE of the region’s top police officers has spoken out about his new role protecting children from online sexual abuse and exploitation.

Detective Inspector Phil Cleugh has 26 years of policing experience across major crime, intelligence and safeguarding.

But, his biggest challenge since he moved to the North East Regional Special Operations Unit (NERSOU) is as regional coordinator for tackling child abuse and online sexual exploitation.

He works closely with specialist teams at Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland forces – sharing essential information about potential predators and the possible dangers facing young people as they continue to socialise and study across a range of digital platforms.

His team regularly takes part in specialist policing operations and earlier this month, this activity culminated in the arrest and subsequent charging of a suspected paedophile, accused of attempting to meet a child under 16 years of age for a sexual purpose following grooming.

The 57-year-old was soon arrested by officers from Northumbria Police and is due to appear at Newcastle Crown Court later this month.

Det Insp Cleugh said: “As police officers there is nothing we want more than to protect children from the devastating harm abuse and exploitation can cause.

“Exploitation can take many forms but one of the most prevalent methods we have seen over the last year is online exploitation where children find themselves being manipulated, coerced and pressured into sending indecent images, taking part in live streams with dangerous predators, or exposed to graphic content through absolutely no fault of their own.

“The internet knows no geographical boundaries which is why police and law enforcement are creating new, effective ways of working and sharing information to protect young people not only across the UK, but overseas.

“Parents can be confident that as we come out of lockdown we will be working harder than ever to make sure children and young people are safe and free from abuse, no matter where they are.”

The team is keen to promote to parents, teachers, carers and anyone who looks after young people the importance of taking an interest in their online activity.

Det Insp Cleugh added: “Communication is vital – we’d always encourage people to have regular conversations with their children or pupils about what they’re up to and if anything is bothering or upsetting them.

“Parental controls are a great asset, and there a range of different tools you can learn about and use to mirror your child’s device, or sync it up to your own so you know what sites and apps they are using. We’d also encourage you to share the message that an online stranger is the same as a stranger in the real world – precautions need to be taken around accepting friend requests and letting people you don’t know into your virtual home.

“It might seem daunting but you can find lots of information online to make sure you feel informed and your children feel empowered.

“And also, never forget that we are working tirelessly to pursue to offenders and bring them to justice.

“Northumbria Police also has specialist teams which help young people to understand what exploitative behaviour might look like and how to report it.”

If you suspect anyone is a victim of exploitation or harm, report online via your local police force's website or contact 101. Always call 999 in an emergency.