Seattle Police Capt. Mike Edwards and his team comb through hundreds of tips each month of online sexual misconduct against children in Washington state.
The expensive nature of each investigation, involving highly-trained investigators who spend weeks, sometimes months, building each case, has put Edwards’ team in a financial pinch — one he hopes will be eased by a proposed tax in the state Legislature.
“This is an area where we need help because we don’t have enough resources or people,” Edwards said.
The proposed tax would add 40 cents to the sale of all internet-connecting devices, including cell phones, tablets and laptops. Sponsors believe the tax would raise $3 million a year for victim services, prevention education and the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force.
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Since 1998, more than 12 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation have been filed with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a group that relays tips to state law enforcement.
A third of tips in the past five years have come from internet service providers who are required to report them to the center’s hotline. Google provided the tip against Vancouver, Washington resident Darrell Leonard Velasco, who was convicted in 2017 for owning material depicting children engaged in sexual activities.
Tipsters also clue in law enforcement directly. Three Seattle brothers were arrested last year, with two facing charges, after a niece going through their house found bits of a decades old child pornography collection and reported it to law enforcement.
Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, author of this year’s bill, offered the wifi-device tax as a way to create long-term funding solution for the state’s task force. A hearing for the bill is scheduled for Friday.
“We have the technology and ability to identify sexual predators and rescue children from sexual abuse,” Sawyer said. “It would be frustrating beyond measure if there’s an effort to fight this law.”
That opposition would likely come over the tax, not the task force and the crimes it addresses — child pornography, sharing illicit content and grooming children online for in-person sexual activities. With lawmakers trying to find $1 billion dollars more in education funding to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling, some Republicans chafed at the idea of another tax.
“We need to live within our means,” Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said. “What they’re spending the money on is good, but I think its funding should be done with existing money.”
Some lawmakers wanted more detail on how the funds would be spent, a concern that contributed to the defeat of a similar effort last year. The prior bill would have drawn from excess lottery funds instead of implementing a new tax.
“How many more crimes could you solve? How many more investigations could you have, and what impact would that have? What would child-advocacy centers be able to do?” Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said. “If we’re going to demonstrate that government is here to serve people and provide programs and services for better outcomes, we better be able to quantify it.“
While no numbers have been provided, much of the money would go toward task force investigations that Edwards, a 37-year law enforcement veteran, called “the most complicated investigations I’ve ever worked with.”
Investigators sift through large amounts of illicit content while ensuring investigations stays within the law. Investigators require a year of training — or four, depending on the position — before taking on their own cases.
There is high turnover among investigators, according to Edwards. Many leave within five years and some don’t stay for longer than six months because of the unsettling nature of the job, which requires browsing through terabytes of child pornography.
Currently the task force uses software to cut down on the amount of image and video investigators have to see. The program works by marking images with a unique tag, like a fingerprint, eliminating the need to look at the same one twice. Funds under the new bill would help reduce the number further by bringing on more personnel and resources.
“When you start talking about tens of thousands of hours of this stuff, you can see how damaging this can be. Anytime we can reduce the number of images folks have to look at … that’s huge, ” Edwards said.