People who have viewed child sex images online but are not likely to be "contact abusers" should be treated by health services rather than brought before a court, Britain's most senior child protection police chief has said.
Simon Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers' (Acpo) lead officer on child protection and abuse investigations, said research suggests at least 50% of people viewing child abuse images could be classified as "non-contact abusers".
In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Bailey (pictured), chief constable of Norfolk Police, said his approach was based on "realism" but admitted it could be "a very unpalatable response from a senior police officer".
"What academic research would say is between 16% and 50% of those people who have viewed indecent images of children are then likely to be 'contact abusers'. That can be as high as 25,000 or as low as 8,000. (This group) poses a threat.
But he said those that were not considered a threat did not "need to come into the criminal justice system in terms of being put before a court".
"We have to think about an alternative solution. (We) need to engage with service providers from mental health and the health service to work with us to say these people need help.
"It is based upon the fact there will be a significant number of those people who will simply not go on to contact abuse."
Police are thought to have a database of 50,000 people who have viewed child sex images, according to the paper.
It comes after a doctor, Myles Bradbury, was jailed for 22 years this week for abusing 18 sick boys in his care, including possessing 16,000 indecent images.
His case is among those which has attracted criticism after Canadian police passed details of suspected paedophiles to UK forces as part of Operation Spade.
But in many of the cases, there were long delays in officers acting on the tip-offs.
Figures obtained by the Press Association last month showed more than 200 suspects are still being investigated after the information was first passed to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in July 2012.
The comments also come after a self-confessed paedophile outed himself on TV in a Channel Four documentary last month, admitting he was attracted to young girls but denying he had committed an offence.
Named only as Eddie, he said he was seeking help in Europe, where countries such as Germany have dedicated treatment centres, while experts called for the UK to adopt a similar approach.
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