By Steve Griffith, Chief of Police, Sugar Land, Texas
ugar Land’s Internet safety awareness campaign is a cross-sector collaboration involving all levels of government, nonprofit organizations, and the business community. The program uses education, enforcement, and prevention to help parents, families, and communities protect children from online predators.
Youths Identified Safety as Top Concern
This grassroots initiative grew from the work of the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council (MYAC), a city-sponsored teen group that advises government leaders on the development of programs and services affecting young people. During a meeting with city officials, MYAC identified safety as a top concern of young people in Sugar Land. They want to feel safe in their schools, where they socialize, and in their homes. They also want to be safe on the Internet.
Young people are becoming increasingly aware of the stories of crimes and predators associated with popular blogs and chat rooms. In Sugar Land, the mayor’s office, the police department, and the Texas attorney general’s Cyber Crime Unit joined with MYAC to form a plan addressing Internet safety.
MYAC members focused on smart decisions regarding personal information posted on the Internet and participation in chat rooms, which have become one of the most dangerous and popular places on the Internet. Social sites like myspace.com have become increasingly popular with young people, but these sites can also be prime target areas for predators.
Educational Presentations Component
Educational materials were developed for the targeted age group, middle school youths. To reinforce the message delivered to the youths, an educational presentation was also developed for their parents.
The middle school presentations were first developed for consideration and evaluation by the school districts. Meetings were held with school district officials and school counselors to finalize the actual presentations. The final program included an introduction from mayor, peer-to-peer discussions, and a presentation by the attorney general’s Cyber Crime Unit.
The middle school presentation had two strengths. First, the program was prepared and introduced by students from MYAC. The MYAC students were able to design a presentation in student terms, addressing student concerns. Second, the presentation relied heavily on the law enforcement experiences of the Cyber Crime Unit.
The students witnessed an eye-opening video in which a 34-year-old law enforcement agent, posing as a 13-year-old girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, entering a chat room. Within 15 minutes, the fictitious girl received a sexual proposition from another participant in the chat room. The agent, a member of the Cyber Crime Unit, also demonstrated that it took a mere 20 minutes to gather information about another chat room visitor who used the screen name Teresa01. The agent learned Teresa01’s home address, phone number, parent’s names, and school name. The agent also obtained pictures of Teresa01. The agent’s demonstration in the video had a rare effect on the middle school students: they were speechless at the presentation’s conclusion.
The Fort Bend Independent School District developed a presentation that focused on parents. The counselors from the school district hosted several evening meetings for parents. At these meetings, the message presented to their children is reinforced. In addition, information is presented to parents that will help them look for telltale signs of Internet crime. At these district meetings, parents have been unanimous in their appreciation and approval of the educational effort.
Using a foundation of materials provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s NetSmartz program (www.NetSmartz.org), a complete packet of materials was developed. The packet (printed by a local business) was titled “Keep Kids E-Safe Toolkit: A Community Internet Safety Program for Students and Adults.” It included educational CD-ROMs, (one for parents, one for children); a mouse pad; pens and pencils; an Internet abbreviation dictionary; and printed information sheets. Most importantly the packet contained the NetSmartz Internet safety pledge for middle and high school students that included a promise to talk with their parents about their expectations and ground rules for going online. Students read and signed the pledge.
This partnership among MYAC, the Sugar Land Police Department, the Fort Bend Independent School District, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children resulted in presenting the educational program to more than 600 public and private middle school students in Sugar Land.
The Enforcement Component
An important aspect of Sugar Land’s effort was enforcement. Like many agencies this size, Sugar Land had little experience in child predator stings involving the Internet; but the state attorney general placed a priority on this crime and made the resources of the Cyber Crime Unit available to Sugar Land. The Cyber Crime Unit not only conducted investigations in Sugar Land but also trained Sugar Land detectives in cybercrime investigations.
In spring 2006, the Sugar Land Police Department hosted an Internet sting for two weeks. The city provided the conference room and the attorney general’s office provided multiple investigators and the computer equipment. The attorney general’s office worked closely with the police department and brought a prosecutor to work with the county’s district attorney. It was clear from the beginning that the focus of this investigative effort was on obtaining convictions. The attorney general’s staff was dedicated to developing the evidence to obtain convictions. They educated county prosecutors and helped the district attorney’s staff during the subsequent trials. At the time they conducted their sting in Sugar Land, the unit had a conviction success rate of 100 percent.
Teaching Online Investigation Methods to Detectives
The long-term payoff of this cooperative enforcement effort came in the growth and development of Sugar Land’s investigative staff. Sugar Land detectives are senior investigators who have dedicated many years to the methodical collection of evidence and the fine skills of live interviews. But place these detectives in front of a computer terminal, where communication happens fast and in abbreviated code, and they experience culture shock.
The attorney general’s office took two different detectives every day of the sting and educated them on their investigative methods. The sting was conduct from a large conference room, a cybercrime war room, where multiple investigators were working on laptops. Each investigator would manage three or four online conversations at the same time. Sugar Land investigators were shocked to learn that within minutes, they (posing online as young children) were propositioned, engaged in conversations, and received photos that most parents would be embarrassed even to discuss with their children.
A highlight of the enforcement sting came when one of Sugar Land’s most senior investigators caught the first traveler. In cooperation with a local apartment complex, the attorney general’s office had helped police carefully select an apartment for use in the sting that would not directly affect the neighborhoods. The result of this two-week enforcement sting netted multiple criminal cases. In addition, Sugar Land investigators now have a level of comfort and knowledge about working Internet predator crimes.
In summary, the model used by Sugar Land can easily be replicated. A partnership of local government, local law enforcement, state law enforcement, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, schools, and parents is actually an easy mix. Every one of the entities has a vested interest in the protection of the nation’s youth.
A youth-driven, peer-presented education effort is the most effective way to communicate with and involve young people. A collaborative effort involving government, schools, businesses, and parents helps ensure community support. Finally, an enforcement effort that uses dedicated state resources and local investigators not only produces convictions but also dramatically increases the ability of local law enforcement to work online child predator cases. ■