(Victoria, Australia) - PARENTS of children targeted by paedophiles and bullies online or via mobile phones are being fobbed off at their local police stations by officers untrained to deal with cyber-crimes, according to two former high-profile members of Victoria Police.
They say Victoria is lagging behind other states and territories when it comes to tackling cyber-crime because the police are unaware of which laws apply to the growing menace of online bullying, ''grooming'' of children for sexual exploitation, stalking and ''sexting'' (sexual texting).
''I would average one call every 14 days from a mother trying to report cyber-bullying or grooming [to police] only to be told 'it's not our problem' and to go to the federal authorities,'' said former cyber-safety project officer Susan McLean. ''Most Victorian police officers have no knowledge of these crimes or how to deal with them.''
Using mobile phones to stalk or to harass is a crime under the Australian Telecommunications Act, a Commonwealth law. Victorian police can conduct investigations into such complaints but lack the expertise to do so, Ms McLean said.
Her concerns are echoed by former deputy commissioner Bob Falconer, who said Victoria Police had no policies and frontline police had no instructions on how to deal with such incidents.
''Unless you give police some operation policy or standard guideline, they have no way of dealing with it,'' Mr Falconer said. ''They can take some action but they need to be told that.''
Ms McLean, who now runs her own-cyber safety business, was appointed Victoria's first ''cyber-cop'' in 2006, with responsibility for raising public awareness of internet dangers and recommending strategies to tackling cyber-crime. She was sent to the US on a study tour to gather information on how police in other jurisdictions were tackling this form of crime.
On her return, the former senior constable made several recommendations to Victoria Police, including the establishment of a specialised unit to tackle internet crimes against children.
But she quit the force in frustration in 2007 after her recommendations were ignored.
''I was a unit of one,'' said Ms McLean. ''I got out because nothing was happening. Victoria Police are playing catch-up. Cyber-crime is not a focal point. It was all in the too hard basket.
''They will tell you there is an e-crime unit, but this is for high-level fraud, stolen identities, major crime. It is not about cyber-bullying, stalking, harassing. There is no expertise and they don't see it as their problem.''
Queensland and Western Australia have established specialised cyber-crime units.
Dr Ian Warren, a criminologist and cyber-crime specialist at Deakin University, says police at state and federal levels need a taskforce to deal with this fast-emerging criminal behaviour.
"They are incredibly strapped for resources to deal with this, and training is difficult because it is just emerging," Dr Warren said.
"We need better training and warnings of how to deal with cyber-crime in the police agencies and better collaboration to break down boundaries between agencies,'' he said.
A spokesman for Victoria Police said the force took cyber-crime seriously and aimed to educate the public, particularly parents and children, about the dangers of the internet, through lectures and brochures.
The police did not respond to questions about training or whether the force planned to set up a cyber-safety unit.
But according to Mr Falconer and Ms McLean, officers are able to act on such issues by referring the complaints to the sex crimes unit.
The federal criminal law imposes a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment for using the internet to menace, harass or cause offence to another user.
According to Dr Warren, penalties apply in cases where a ''reasonable person'' would consider the alleged behaviour to be offensive, which could extend to any socially questionable content such as depictions of drug use, sexual violence, strong language or blood and gore.