RCMP Child Porn Fight Rewarding, Horrifying

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An ad campaign launched by Predator Watch warns child predators that police are patrolling online forms masking as children, teens. (Predator Watch)
An ad campaign launched by Predator Watch warns child predators that police are patrolling online forms masking as children, teens. (Predator Watch)

SURREY, B.C. - To a young teenager's eyes, the invitation from an online male suitor seems relatively harmless at first: perhaps you'd like to cuddle, talk, play games?

Five minutes into the chat, the 27-year-old from the Metro Vancouver area asks if she has a "BF." He then casually mentions porn.

I'm 13 years old, she reminds the man. She posts a blushing smiley-face emoticon.

Ten more minutes in, she clicks open a digital image he's just sent her way. The photo is not his face, but another body part, standing at attention. It scores the man a rendezvous, but not with the teenybopper he imagined.

"It's probably the most meaningful work I can do in the force," says the blonde RCMP constable and mother of two, who was the man's actual chat partner.

She sends officers knocking at the man's door, and he is later convicted of luring and invitation to sexual touching in a B.C. court.

"When you get a guilty plea ... there is a sense of justice."

Posing as a youngster to catch predators is a relatively new strategy being used by British Columbia RCMP to proactively keep children safe. It's one of many tasks performed by officers in the Surrey-based Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, or ICE, rating somewhat less repugnant than other duties that have sent cops running to the bathroom to vomit.

Cases involving hard drives crammed with toddler rape photographs and attackers live streaming sexual assaults on five-year-olds jostle for resources that might also go towards pursuing Canadian child sex tourists in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Domestic crimes compete for the finite time, energies and mental health of the 12 members who staff B.C.'s ICE Unit — a reality advocates for the more complex overseas files don't begrudge. Visiting several restricted areas of the otherwise plain-looking office buildings provides a lens into the dedication and grit of the close-knit team members who subject themselves daily to children's suffering because they're compelled to make that pain go away.

"A lot of people ask that question, how can you do this job?" the female constable told The Canadian Press during an interview watched over by two of her superior officers.

"When I'm chatting online I'm able to separate myself somewhat. But when you interview a victim, it tugs at your heart."

The officer, whose name is withheld at the request of the RCMP, works in an enclosed office on as many as five computer monitors as her 11-year-old daughter and five-year-old son smile down at her from photos on a nearby corkboard.

She has more than a decade's experience in policing and has also presided as a coroner. She said she copes with the disturbing work by maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle — eating right, appreciating her good co-workers and having a "twisted" sense of humour.

"If someone is masturbating before me on a web cam, I think it's disgusting," she said. "But you have a job to do and you do it."

Officers hired into the unit are pre-screened and exposed to lower-end images of child sexual abuse to see if they have a stomach for the distress. They undergo an intense psychological exam beforehand, and then see a professional every six months.

They needn't have particular expertise, instead what counts is an interest in protecting children and perhaps work on similar files in the past.

It takes about a year and a half to fully train an investigator, and includes courses on digital technology and child Internet exploitation. Later on, they may take advanced undercover training.

Seasoned investigators tend to have more stamina for the role, although eager rookies have been known to spend hours holed up in the child pornography filtering room believing their tolerance is high.

"You want to make sure you're screening the right people for their sake," said Insp. Gary Shinkaruk, officer in charge of the B.C. RCMP major crime, special projects unit. "Once that damage is done, you can't undo it — you can't erase the images."

Staff Sgt. Bev Csikos leads a team of two corporals, nine constables, two analysts and two technical crime unit support members on a $2 million annual budget. The unit provides its unique expertise on Internet-based child exploitation to support 131 detachments across the province.

The 23-year police veteran was a strong plain-clothes investigator who worked on the serial killer Robert Pickton case long before joining ICE in 2008. She took over in 2011.

The team rescued one child in her first year, while last year they saved upwards of 40.

But with the triumphs come chilling cases almost too horrific to comprehend.

Csikos cited the discovery of a five-year-old girl who was conceived to be abused.

"To meet her in person, she doesn't know how to play, she knows how to be sexually promiscuous," Csikos said. "I wonder what she'll be like when she grows up."

Keeping the spirit intact, for Csikos, involves devoting herself to projects educating youth about safely using the Internet. She likens it to a giant tool, as dangerous as a car, which she believes has been handed to youngsters without any commensurate driver's ed.

"When I played spin-the-bottle in a dark room at age seven, there was no camera," she said.

Now, if a child exposes themselves, it can get transmitted online with a click of a button.

"If there's one message," she said, directing her comment at parents, "get that computer out of the bedroom."

Down the hall in a back corner of the partitioned office is where another constable can often be found, viewing and categorizing child pornography.

The images come to the unit on hard drives, after trained technicians extract the data from CDs, thumbdrives and computers seized with a warrant.

There can be tens to hundreds of thousands of images to be sorted, including vacation pictures, nude baby photos and adult pornography that doesn't meet the criteria. It's a consuming task that Csikos has limited to a couple hours a day for each investigator.

"This job definitely isn't for anybody," says the female constable inside the room with closed blinds. "People say,'Are you crazy? Sick?' I think it does take a very unique individual to do this."

"When I look at the pictures, it's a quick (glance). I know it's for a greater cause," she says. "For me, I find it less difficult to do this than to look at dead people."

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