Law enforcers go online with citizen sleuths to bring Internet predators to justice
"Probably because he felt safe here, in this little 'podunk' town," Burns says. "If he had this mentality, you know others do too. We are all vulnerable."
Planning for a sting
When the Riverside County Sheriff's Department decided to cooperate with Perverted Justice on a sex sting designed to catch Internet predators in the act, Lt. Chad Bianco expected to catch around seven pedophile "wannabe's" a day. The department wound up apprehending 51 people. "We were amazed, 100-percent amazed, by the results," he says. "It was just a flood, and we were overwhelmed." But thanks to some advance planning, the department easily handled its response.
Bianco's tips for a successful sting include:
Put enough people in place to do the job. Sixteen sworn officers and many non-sworn community service officers aided the department in this sting. That's not counting the 45 people Perverted Justice brought to the table.
Work with Perverted Justice on some one-off arrests before jumping into a three-day sting. "This is a big operation," he says. "If we hadn't worked with them previously, we would not have known what to expect."
Plan as much as you can and be ready for the unexpected. Det. Mike Burns from the Darke County (Ohio) Sheriff's Office notes much advance preparation occurred before the department's Dateline sting that apprehended 18 men. The department set up five teams of two, a deputy and a detective, to serve as take-down teams. Four similar teams stood on standby to block escape avenues if a suspect started running, and to help clear the area after an arrest. Two officers worked the impound lot, where the subjects' vehicles were towed. They also dedicated jail workers to book arrestees and placed a wrecker service on call to tow vehicles at a moment's notice.
But planning can only go so far, adds Bianco. He likens it to a drug bust, where undercover officers do a reverse and are in a house selling crack. "You take it as it comes," he says. "You don't know what you're going to get. You don't know if you'll have a foot pursuit. You don't know if they'll be armed. You need to prepare for the worst and hope it comes out for the best."
Don't be afraid to change plans on the fly. Riverside planned to execute a search warrant for every individual who showed up. Department policy dictates a supervisor be present for every warrant. The first person arrived and his home was 2.5 hours away. "With the first person, we learned this was out the window," Bianco says. "The only ones we ended up doing search warrants on were those who sent child porn."
Put an officer on site near the house around the clock. Bianco spent the night in the motor home behind the meeting place, just in case someone showed up before or after the operation each day. "It's good I did," he says. "We weren't supposed to start until noon every day and get done around 1 or 2 a.m. There were people showing up at 3:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. I ended up arresting four people."
The good news and bad news about Internet safety
A National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) study comparing youth online experiences in 1999-2000 with those in 2005 offers both good and bad news for those concerned about Internet safety.
The study revealed a pronounced increase in Internet users ages 10 to 17 reporting exposure to unwanted pornography — fully one-third in 2005 compared to 25 percent previously. There also was an increase in online harassment, which rose to 9 percent compared to 6 percent in the earlier survey. The study also reported online youth received fewer unwanted online sexual solicitations, only one in seven in 2005 compared to one in five youth in 1999-2000.
Unfortunately, the most serious kinds of sexual solicitations, those in which solicitors attempted to make offline contact with youth, did not decline. According to study authors, this suggests the most determined solicitors have not been deterred and that more targeted prevention efforts may be necessary.