Norfolk, England's Chief Constable Simon Bailey said police must focus on "contact abusers" - people who commit abuse - an estimated 16-50% of those who view it.
Mr Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead for child protection, said police "simply cannot cope" with the numbers viewing images.
|Norfolk's Chief Constable Simon Bailey|
Mr Bailey said he understood how controversial his proposal was, and that most people would want those who viewed child abuse locked up.
'Mental health issue'
He told BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight that viewing abuse was an "abhorrent crime" but there was a limit to "what policing can do" due to the sheer numbers of people doing it.
"Law enforcement has to come up with a model for dealing with the people that pose the greatest threat to children in the form of contact abuse whilst dealing with those people that don't pose the threat in a different way," he said.
Simon Bailey said he knew his comments would be "controversial"
He said police had commissioned a review of all available academic research, and the results suggested between 16% and 50% of people who viewed indecent images of children "were then likely to be contact abusers".
Mr Bailey said 90% of child abuse took place within the home and believed most people would say those who view child abuse must have a "mental health issue".
'Victims are children'
"We should be actively working with clinicians who can get to the bottom of that perverse attraction and starting to help those people who would seek to derive some pleasure from looking at a child being abused," he said.
David Niven, former chairman of the British Association of Social Workers, said the idea that people who viewed abuse were no threat to children was "ridiculous".
He said "consumers" of abuse images created a market for it, and were therefore "causing the abuse".
Mr Niven agreed there should be more treatment but said there was "no such thing as a cure".
He said other addicts only harmed themselves - but "in this case other victims are children".
"So you've got to have dual controls, you've got to have the threat of enforcement as well as the provision of treatment," he said.
My sentiments exactly, 'non-contact' pedophiles need to be locked up, or at least prevented from accessing child pornography while they are getting therapy which should be available to all.
I disagree with Mr. Niven in that I believe pedophilia can be cured either through therapy or through spiritual deliverance. Pedophilia is less a mental illness than a spiritual affliction. I think that is clear from the progressive nature of pornography - from adult porn, to kiddie porn, to younger and younger children, to more violence, to bestiality and snuff videos. Somewhere in that line of progression, some peds become contact peds. Consequently, I believe all pornography should be illegal as it was not very many years ago. (Note: I believe many contact peds were acting out from a young age, with or without pornography).
But I also understand Chief Bailey's concerns that 'contact' pedophiles should be a higher priority for police. Child pornography obviously has victims but not at the rate of 'one child - one child abuse' as with contact peds. One abused child may feed hundreds or thousands of child porn users, so should be considered less urgent.
Governments should concentrate on eliminating child pornography from the internet and providing services to non-contact peds like the program in Germany. That program runs an ad on television, and elsewhere, I think, which resonates with peds and then offers them an opportunity for help. The program appears to be very successful in helping child porn users before they become contact peds.