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Back to Archives | Back to February 2009 Contents 

Technology Talk

Partnerships Target Online Predators: The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force

By William J. Bratton, Chief of Police, Los Angeles, California; and Lieutenant John A. Romero, Officer in Charge, Media Relations Section, Los Angeles Police Department

his year, the Los Angeles, California, Police Department (LAPD) proudly celebrates its 140-year anniversary. The six men who became the LAPD’s first officers in 1869 could not have imagined the technology that has since become commonplace. To them, radio, television, air travel, cellular telephones, and the Internet would have seemed like magic. Even people living today can marvel at how technology and travel have made the world seem like a very small place.

Each technological advancement has presented unique challenges and opportunities for the law enforcement community, but none more so than the Internet. This vast source of information gives predators seemingly unlimited access to potential victims while also blurring jurisdictional lines—a situation exploited by thugs, thieves, and desperadoes of every type, every day. As with the Wild West of the 1860s, the Internet is a frontier desperately in need of someone who will protect the innocent, especially children. As so-called digital natives, the children of today are the first to grow up with the Internet. They seem to “point and click” their way around the world intuitively. Parents and caregivers with the best of intentions have equipped their children with unprecedented connectivity.

Proof of the extent to which today’s children are “plugged in” can be found in any grade school in the United States. When the closing bell rings, even some first and second graders can be seen with a cell phone or another wireless device. In younger years, members of older generations might have had a “pen pal” or two and were thrilled to get a postcard from a faraway place. Today’s children communicate by text-messaging multiple friends in near-real time, across the street and around the globe. They forge relationships with people they have “known” only through servers and monitors. Web sites and chat rooms offer easy ways to share personal information with friends and the world. When access is regulated by a responsible adult, the Internet can be a fun and exciting frontier for children. Unfortunately, these sites have also become largely unregulated societies and prime hunting grounds for those who would seek to exploit children sexually. Filters and firewalls are of little use, because predators manipulate their victims’ level of trust long before they cross from the virtual world into the real world. Only a team of highly trained law enforcement professionals and other service providers, in partnership with the responsible online community, can protect children from becoming victims of Internet-related crimes.

A Special Breed of Officers

Currently, there are 59 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force operations in the United States staffed by local, state, and federal law enforcement personnel. Officers assigned to the task force know far more about computers than do average street cops, and each task force possesses within its ranks the legal and tactical expertise to write a warrant, kick in a door, make a physical arrest, and get a conviction. Just like street cops, task force members know where to patrol and how to guard against violations of constitutional rights. Like undercover officers on the street, ICAC Task Force members develop an expertise all their own, receiving tips, developing leads, and then strategically placing themselves where crime is occurring—in this case, in the darkest recesses of the Internet.

The big difference between task force members and their street counterparts is that undercover officers who witness a crime or who encounter a victim can take immediate action. Imagine witnessing a brutal attack on a child through a window and being unable to come to his or her defense. In many cases, ICAC Task Force members are in that kind of situation; they must witness unspeakably cruel attacks on children through the window of a computer monitor. It could be a video clip, a still photo, or other compelling evidence of child exploitation. The investigating officer may not know if the child is dead or alive or if the child is in Los Angeles or on a faraway continent. Task force members see the worst of the worst and must not become tainted by the exposure or jaded at the prospect that the investigation could take days, weeks, or months to complete.

Solving crimes related to the manufacture, distribution, and possession of child pornography, as well as those involving enticement, solicitation, and traveling for the purpose of having sex with a minor, is not a job for the faint of heart. ICAC personnel are a special breed of officers.

Following the Clues

There is no telling what an ICAC Task Force member will find at the end of a trail of clues. Sometimes they discover the stereotypical “chicken hawk” wearing an overcoat with no pants and living in a run-down motel, but not often. Many times suspects are people with careers, spouses, and children of their own, even individuals considered to be in good standing in the community. It is impossible to identify a sexual predator by sight. Investigators must painstakingly piece together each clue. One agency’s vague and ambiguous clue could be the missing piece to another agency’s puzzle. Coordination among the different regions of the ICAC Task Force enables the timely handling of leads as well as the efficient sharing of information and prevents the duplication of efforts. Leads can come from other members of the task force, law enforcement partners, service providers, and the community at large. Every year, the Los Angeles Region alone conducts follow-up investigations on over 400 leads provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Education, Prevention, and Intervention

Task force operations are partnering with public and private schools and parenting groups to provide information on how to prevent Internet crimes against children. Just as in the real world, parents must know their children’s friends in the cyberworld. Predators target children who lack a strong parental figure. So when children are online hour upon hour, day after day, predators notice. Responsible parents, teachers, or relatives will detect an inappropriate relationship long before children are enticed to meet their “friends” in person. A community partnership is realized when an inappropriate relationship is reported well in advance of a face-to-face meeting.

Few developments are as gratifying to an ICAC Task Force member as when a sexual predator schemes for a meeting with a vulnerable child, only to find an on-duty officer standing in place of the expected victim. Education, prevention, and intervention are a huge part of the ICAC Task Force model.

Task Force Partnerships

The men and women who make up the ICAC Task Force stand as the last line of defense between children and Internet predators. If children are going to be protected, no time can be wasted on crosstown “us versus them” rivalries between a sheriff’s department and a police department or between local and federal agents. Rivalries are for football teams; police agencies and communities of service providers must work together and share information.

Members of the Los Angeles ICAC Task Force operation include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department; the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department; the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at Port Hueneme; and police departments from the cities of Glendale, Torrance, Redlands, and Simi Valley. The 11-agency partnership serves five counties and 16 million people.

The 59 ICAC Task Force operations in the United States are funded in large part by grants provided through the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In California, state grants administered by the Office of Emergency Services also bridge a critical gap. Even so, many chiefs are forced to staff some positions out of an operating budget that is already stretched to a breaking point. If children are truly society’s most important resource and its future, protecting them must be a priority.

For its efforts in response to computer-related crime, the Los Angeles ICAC Task Force was recognized with an IACP-iXP Excellence in Technology Award at the 115th Annual IACP Conference in San Diego, California.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 2, February 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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