Alan Billings, police and crime commissioner for the local force, said “it all went wrong” because police did not understand what grooming was or that it was child abuse.
Billings was speaking after reports revealed that police were warned 10 years ago about the extent of the problem in South Yorkshire but did nothing about it.
“I think we saw these girls not as victims but as troublesome young people out of control and willing participants. We saw it as child prostitution rather than child abuse, and I think that was broadly accepted and that’s why it all went wrong.”
Billings said police were prioritising burglary and car theft because of public demands at the time.
He added that the problem was a cultural issue, which went beyond South Yorkshire police.
A report by Prof Alexis Jay published last August revealed that at least 1,400 children were raped, trafficked and groomed in Rotherham.
A further review by Louise Casey, published this year, led to the mass resignation of the council’s ruling Labour cabinet. The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, ordered government-appointed commissioners to take over the running of the council.