By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
The Internet isn’t always a safe place for kids — especially with online predators posing as their peers, looking to exploit them.
In smaller communities, such as Little Falls, the resources are not available for law enforcement to track down those that prey on children over the Internet.
That’s where the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force comes in. The Minnesota ICAC Task Force is part of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s (BC) investigations section.
When Little Falls Police Officer Kyle Johnson was promoted to captain earlier this year, he suggested the Little Falls Police Department (LFPD) become a part of the ICAC Task Force.
Johnson became familiar with the Task Force within the last year, when it worked a case that made connections in Little Falls.
“We assisted them with that. That’s what kind of prompted getting involved with the Task Force — realizing that we don’t have these capabilities that they have, so if these things come up, there’s not a whole lot for us to do at this point,” said Johnson. “It was kind of scary actually, it opened our eyes to the fact that we need to do more.”
An agreement to become part of the ICAC Task Force was recently signed by the LFPD. Johnson said he had full support from Police Chief Greg Schirmers and the City Council gave its approval.
“Basically what it does is it gives us more support, training and a lot of technical assistance to deal with Internet crimes and children with cyber enticement and child pornography,” said Johnson. “Being a smaller community, we don’t have a whole lot of resources as far as the technical support and the forensics with computers.”
Being affiliated with ICAC gives the LFPD access to people who can assist with that type of support.
“They have people that can actually get into these computers — there’s a lot to actually getting in there, finding this information and tracking these people — finding their IP address, finding where they are located,” said Johnson.
While the initial training Johnson will take is geared toward cyber enticement of children and child pornography, he said the training will eventually help officers investigate other cyber crimes, such as cyberbullying and online fraud and scams.
The program works on a three-pronged approach: prevention, education and enforcement, Johnson said.
“ICAC will have the resources for us to reach out to the community,” he said. “Basically, what will happen is we’ll get people trained to go into the schools, teach Internet safety to the kids and the teachers to try to get the message out there.”
Johnson said the community education portion will be extended to libraries as well, where kids have access to the Internet. “It’s important to get the message out there,” he said.
Johnson said this type of education is much like the kind of training kids were given before the age of the Internet. “Before we had computers and stuff, it was a conversation about strangers and to stay away from people you don’t know,” Johnson said. “The problem is, it’s way more difficult today. They don’t know who’s putting in the key strokes, who’s really on the computer on the other end. A lot of times predators pose as kids.”
Part of the education will be for parents to alert them to what to look for and “to keep up with what kids are looking at on websites and viewing the content,” said Johnson. “Look at whether it’s a little odd for this person to be asking (their kids) these types of questions.”
County Attorney Brian Middendorf said he thinks it’s great that the LFPD is now part of the ICAC Task Force.
“It’s now a fact of life that children and teenagers are spending a great deal of time on the Internet. And it’s amazing how many people, both children and adults, meet and chat with complete strangers over the Internet,” said Middendorf. “And while we would like to think that the internet is a safe place for children, we know that this is not true. There is a lot of online activity by child predators seeking unsupervised contact with underage victims.”
Middendorf said prosecuting Internet predators can be difficult and expensive.
“There are no geographic borders on the Internet. An Internet predator can be in one state and his victims can be in other states,” he said.
“Obtaining the specialized knowledge and resources to investigate these online crimes is essential to successful prosecution. ICAC Task Force membership promises to be a very helpful tool for both Little Falls and Morrison County.”
It’s important that communities get involved with the effort, said Donald Cheung, Commander of the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
“Making Minnesota a safer place requires effort in every community – large and small,” said Cheung. “Little Falls’ participation grows the network of agencies out there working to catch those who would victimize children. These criminals don’t limit their victims by location.”
In terms of law enforcement participation, Cheung said it’s ICAC’s goal “To create a strong, skilled network of investigators and forensic experts who can help stop these criminals.”
The Minnesota ICAC Task Force works hundreds of cases each year – with cases prosecuted in state or federal court.
“Cases of this nature cross local, state and national borders, so partnerships at every level are critical to success,” said Cheung.
Parents often play a key role in the cases.
Cheung said law enforcement often first learns about this type of crime when an alert parent reports an online contact with their child that doesn’t seem right.
“Parents are strongly urged to talk with their children about online predators and to report any suspicious activity to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline,” said Cheung. “Parents are a critical component of catching those criminals who would harm children.”
The website for the NCMEC CyberTipline can be found at www.missingkids.com/cybertipline.