Earlier this year, our Department of Criminology PhD Student Sophie Dixon joined a county Police Constabulary to help explore child sexual exploitation networks in the UK. Working with the Operation Topaz team she developed a greater understanding of this highly sensitive area, so that her ongoing project work research may be more useful to the police.

Sophie’s report explained some of the challenges she faced:

“Operation Topaz is a child sexual exploitation disruption team – focusing on disrupting suspects where the traditional investigative approach is not an option. I chose to work Avon and Somerset Police because it has a specialist team dedicated to CSE with a forward-thinking approach to supporting academic research. It took around two to three weeks to feel settled and understand the environment, and the team were keen to hear my opinions and gain an outside academic perspective on their approaches to problem solving in policing

Traditionally, resources utilised to tackle child sexual exploitation have been directed towards solo offenders. Recent cases in the UK, however, have demonstrated that there is a persistent subset of sexual offenders that work together to organise and partake in network based child sexual offending. My PhD aims to move the research agenda on child sexual exploitation forward by forming a detailed picture of the multiple features and dynamics at play in network-based child sexual exploitation in the UK. Areas being explored include: social ties within and between networks; offenders’ characteristics; modus operandi; the connection between CSE and organized crime..

I was able to talk to many members of the police force that have been involved in CSE investigations and gain an insight into the challenges they face. I have been able to follow live investigations throughout the fellowship and shadow members of the team, as well as attend multiagency strategy meetings. The impact of this is measurable only in the development of my understanding of the police process when it comes to CSE investigation, disruption, and prevention. This has allowed me to identify the challenges in investigating CSE and better focus my research in a way that may be useful to the police.

I gained experience in working with multiple agencies on a shared projects (in this case safeguarding), and I learned how to communicate with a large team whilst working online from home. Working with people from different backgrounds was a refreshing experience, which gave me new insight into my work and allowed me to see my project from fresh angles. I think I was also able to give the team an outside perspective on their current approach.

The advice I would give to prospective applicants to Cambridge Grand Challenges is, halfway through your time with the organization think about whether you are getting what you need/wanted from the fellowship . Don’t be afraid to be honest with them if you need something different, or both you and the organization will fail to get anything out of the experience. I would also recommend this type of placement to future students.”

Sophie Dixon’s fellowship with Avon and Somerset Constabulary took place between March and August 2021.

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