Proposal dedicates officer to handle internet crimes against children

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The Emergency Services Center in Whitefish. (File photo)

Faced with the need for more expertise to investigate internet crimes against children, the Whitefish Police Department will base one of its current police officers at the United States Department of Homeland Security office in Kalispell.

In turn, the police department will hire an entry-level replacement officer whose salary will be paid for five years with a federal grant from the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program, which operates under the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Whitefish City Council on Monday approved the Internet Crimes Against Children initiative that will allow the budget-neutral staff addition.

In his memorandum to the council, Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said his department is “faced with the ever-changing environment of enforcing crimes involving the internet.

“With social media platforms, the internet criminals and the crimes they commit are becoming more complex and technically challenging,” Dial said.

To address the increasing numbers of reported crimes against children, the Internet Crimes Against Children task force program helps state and local law-enforcement agencies develop an effective response to technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation and internet crimes against children. This help encompasses forensic and investigative components, training and technical assistance, victim services, and community education, according to the Department of Justice website.

The federal Children Act of 2017 reauthorized the program through 2022. It currently has a national network of 61 coordinated task forces representing more than 4,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. Since the program’s inception in 1998, more than 589,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and other professionals have been trained on techniques to investigate and prosecute internet crimes against children.

Dial said the Whitefish Police Department investigates about 15 to 20 cases annually involving the exploitation of children, which include sexting, propositioning children for explicit photos, prostitution, human trafficking and related crimes exploiting children.

One of the most disturbing and violent cases Dial has seen in his 38-year law-enforcement career involved a Whitefish man who was exploiting children throughout the community.

“Had it not been for an ICAC officer from Dallas, Texas, who discovered the internet posts of the sexual predator, he would still be in Whitefish continuing his perverse criminal behavior on our youth,” Dial said in his memo to the council, noting the man was sentenced to the Montana state prison for 100 years.

Dial pointed out the majority of such cases are investigated by an officer or detective lacking the expertise to bring these cases to a successful conclusion. That’s where Internet Crimes Against Children task force comes in.

The designated Whitefish police officer will be stationed at the Homeland Security office in Kalispell, where he will receive extensive training about internet crimes. The Whitefish Police Department will retain operational control over the officer, and when an internet crime is committed in the Whitefish jurisdiction, “we will have an expert to assist our officers in the investigation,” Dial explained.

The officer’s vehicle, any overtime, office space, computer, cellphone and other expenses will be funded by the federal task force, along with the officer’s continuing education. The officer also will be cross-deputized as a federal agent.

In 2016, Internet Crimes Against Children task-force programs conducted more than 61,000 investigations and 77,800 forensic exams, resulting in the arrests of more than 9,300 individuals, according to the Department of Justice.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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