Mike Edwards has witnessed many disturbing crimes in his 35 years with the Seattle Police Department, but the police captain says nothing compares to what he has seen while investigating child pornography.
“It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he said. “I have been involved in homicide investigations. I’ve handled sexual abuse cases — just some really horrible, nasty stuff. It doesn’t even come close to what this is.”
Edwards leads the Internet Crimes Against Children program, a multi-agency task force that includes several agencies in the South Sound, among them the Pierce and Thurston county sheriff’s offices, the Tacoma Police Department and Olympia police.
The task force suspects that 17,000 individuals in Washington are making or viewing child pornography on file-sharing websites. Agencies know where each predator is and the nature of the content they are viewing or distributing. But due to a lack of funding, investigators are able to build cases against only 2 percent of those offenders.
At the state Capitol, lawmakers are working to help the task force extend its reach.
Two measures — Senate Bill 5215, sponsored by Auburn Republican Sen. Pam Roach, and House Bill 1281, backed by Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma — that would create a state account in anticipation of increased funding passed their respective chambers in the Legislature last week in unanimous votes.
“It’s one of our darkest secrets as a society about how often and how prevalent sexual abuse is...,” Sawyer said. “And we have, through technology, an opportunity for the first time to intervene on behalf of a kid without them actually needing to be the person to (report the crime).”
Sawyer’s bill would draw at least part of its costs from a new $1,000 fine levied on offenders for each conviction.
“If I’m going to ask taxpayers to pay plenty to go after folks, I think the first thing I can do is ask the people who are watching these videos, and likely are raping kids, to pay first,” he said.
Washington is a leading state in the nation for people viewing child pornography online, according to law enforcement. Edwards said he thinks this is, in part, due to a tech-savvy population that knows how to easily access the content.
The FBI reports that half of the predators who view or distribute images of children being sexually exploited are themselves abusers of children. The majority of the videos and images are of children under 8 years old, and they often depict children as young as infants being sexually victimized.
The task force relies partly on Internet service providers who tip off investigators to suspected child porn on their networks. Investigators also comb the deep parts of the Internet, where file-sharing sites with the content show up. Through various tools, they can track the online behavior of people uploading and viewing the content, leading to their locations.
Among the task force’s member agencies, there are only six qualified investigators who are dedicated full-time to child porn investigations. Edwards says additional funding would be used toward purchasing more equipment and training additional investigators and forensic examiners so that agencies can pursue more cases.
Except for the fines on offenders that Sawyer proposes, the bills don’t identify the source of the funding. Supporters are working with state budget writers to get the account funded.
Some defense attorneys who represent child porn offenders in court believe the money might be better used in a different way.
Brad Meryhew, a defense attorney with the Washington Sex Offender Policy Board and member of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says the $1,000 fine would make it difficult for offenders to pay for treatment they need. He would also rather see the state money go toward providing counseling.
“The solution is to make resources available so that people can get the help they need to stop this destructive habit,” he said.
Roach said her aim is to not just go after offenders but to also provide education about how to protect minors from online exploitation. She said the Internet has changed the way predators find children, in a way kids aren’t readily prepared to avoid.
“It’s no longer a situation of ‘if that man offers you some candy, don’t get in the car,’ ” she said. “It’s much bigger than that. It’s ‘how would you like to meet me, I’ll take you to a show.’ That’s what’s going on and young people just don’t have the defenses to understand that this could get them in big, big trouble.”