Police Officers Protecting Children Online

Sunday, June 24th 2007, 2:13 pm
By: News On 6

EENID, Okla. (AP) _ With the number of children getting online each day approximately 30 million, the chances of children meeting with an online predator are high, and increasing every day.

Enid Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children Unit has been online since May. Officers pose as children and teens, logging on to all forms of online communications children are likely to frequent.

Detectives use two computer systems and are able to record ``real-time keystrokes'' while online and communicating with someone over the Web.

``Basically, we record everything we do,'' said Detective Bryan Skaggs, one of two EPD detectives in the unit.

Skaggs underwent 80 hours of training to investigate Internet predators, which included classes about social networking Web sites such as MySpace and how to create profiles like a child would, before the unit went online last month.

``We really got online and started doing the undercover stuff,'' Skaggs said.

He said Internet Crimes Against Children Unit will go undercover into all kinds of online communication, including chat rooms, instant messaging and social networking sites.

``Whatever kids are in and predators may use, we're into it,'' Skaggs said.

Online communication is ever-evolving, and Internet communities are growing at a fast pace, he said. That is especially true within the online console gaming, where players can chat before and during gaming.

``These are things we are going to have to keep up with,'' Skaggs said.

Using avatars, or computer icons, for their profiles, detectives are online posing as juveniles, waiting for predators to pounce.

Rules govern how undercover detectives investigate online predators. Detectives cannot engage in any illegal activities while online, such as transmitting pornography.

``We let the bad guys come to us,'' Skaggs said. ``We're out there in the chat rooms, but we don't solicit.''

Passivity isn't a problem. Once online, Skaggs and Detective Bryan Hart said it takes little time for them to be contacted by someone else online.

``Once you get on there chatting you realize it's a pretty big problem,'' Hart said. ``They send you pictures real quick. You start getting IMs (instant messages) in 10 seconds.''

``It doesn't take long,'' Skaggs added.

Although the detectives are online posing as children, contact initiated by other children is rare.

``I've never been contacted by another juvenile,'' Hart said of his time investigating online.

Skaggs said the average time it takes a juvenile online to be contacted for some type of sexual solicitation is between three and five minutes, whether it be through a Web cam, pictures or some type of offer.

Once contacted, detectives can enter the person's identifying information into a program and check to see if other departments across the nation have been in contact or are investigating the same individual.

If so, Skaggs said, information about the Enid unit's contact can be forwarded to other agencies.

``He may choose to travel to Enid, and then that would become our case,'' Skaggs said.

The unit is funded through a federal grant, from Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which is then administered to cities throughout Oklahoma by Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

The money from the grant was used to purchase the computer and system and software the unit uses, as well as pay for classes for detectives.

Police departments across Oklahoma are able to share information about their online investigations of predators.

``We're trying to have a meeting once a quarter in Oklahoma City for all the Oklahoma agencies to share information,'' Skaggs said.

As part of the grant requirements, Skaggs said he lectures groups about online safety and the dangers online predators can pose to children.

Skaggs and Hart also must conduct their online investigations while performing their other duties.

``They still have their regular duties to do, so this is another duty for them,'' said Lt. Tom Nichols of the ICAC unit. ``It's going to require some irregular hours.''

Nichols said the system the unit uses is located in a secure area at the department, and only supervisors and the two detectives have access to the equipment.

``It's serious business, and we're treating it like that,'' Nichols said.

``We're trying to catch the predators that are preying on kids,'' Skaggs said. ``That's our primary objective.''