ICAC unit

The Idaho Internet Crimes Against Children Unit stands outside the Idaho State Capitol building in Boise.

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BOISE — A typical investigator on the Idaho Internet Crimes Against Children Unit averages about 30 cases at one time, said Steve Benkula commander of the Idaho Internet Crimes Against Children Unit.

For any investigator at any local law enforcement agency, that case load is nearly impossible to work through, he said.

Since the beginning of July, the Idaho Press-Tribune has reported on five such cases in which someone has been arrested and faces charges of sexual exploitation of a child.

Members of the Internet Crimes Against Children unit do not expect the caseload to decrease any time soon. With large caseloads and increasing cybertips compared to a relatively small number of investigators, working through each case can prove difficult and time-consuming.

Benkula said the unit received about 14 cybertips per month in 2014 from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The cybertips include information on instances of online enticement of children for sexual acts, child pornography, child sex trafficking and unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child.

Now, the unit averages about 50 of these tips per month — a 357 percent increase.

Cybertips are reported by an electronic source. Those received by the Idaho unit are from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which pertain to crimes against children. The center receives tips from social media outlets, Benkula said, and those tips are then sent to the proper jurisdiction within the country to investigate.

The ICAC task force — one of 61 nationwide — is a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

The unit focuses on three types of crimes: child pornography, child enticements and human trafficking, said Robert Fowler, ICAC unit investigator. Enticers are adults who try to meet children for sex, he said.

Benkula said cybertips have expanded greatly partly because more people are on the internet, but he also said the task force has gotten better at reporting its statistics. The unit is mandated to investigate every cybertip it receives.

The 50 cybertips per month is only one way it receives cases.

Fowler said adding to those 50 cybertips are local agencies that send ICAC-related cases to the unit. The cases are often ones the local agency does not have the resources to handle properly. For example, if the Nampa Police Department were investigating an internet crime against a child but didn’t believe it had enough resources for the investigation, it would notify the ICAC unit for assistance.

The ICAC unit is housed in the Attorney General’s Office at the Idaho State Capitol. Those in the unit work full time on internet crimes against children. The unit receives its funding through the state. During the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the unit received nearly $1.7 million in state funding.

The ICAC unit consists of 14 investigators, Benkula said. Seven investigators are employed through the Attorney General’s Office. The unit also has seven investigators that are employed with local law enforcement agencies that work on the ICAC unit full-time. For example, Fowler, who is a full-time ICAC unit investigator, is employed by the Ada County Sheriff’s Office.

There is also the ICAC task force which is composed of 50 law enforcement agencies statewide. Benkula said these members of the task force only work part-time on the job.

The task force is funded through grants. In September 2017, it was awarded a federal grant of over $250,000. Investigators who are part of the ICAC task force are paid by their department but can receive grants that the ICAC unit applies for to pay for equipment, training or any overtime they receive while investigating ICAC cases.

RECORDING STATS OF INTERNET CRIMES

Benkula said it is hard to pin down how many tips the unit actually responds to because of the multiple jurisdictions working statewide. Each investigator is required to take statistics, but sometimes, he said, those get put on hold for their abundance of cases.

“Our guys underreport their stats, they really do,” Fowler said. “We are literally putting out one fire going to the next, putting it out, going to the next.”

Benkula said they also receive calls each month from people reporting tips directly to the unit instead of 911. If a phone call from a parent said their child was being enticed over the internet, investigators would act quickly on that call.

If a child has a high probability of being victimized, that case becomes priority, Benkula said.

Because of the high volume of tips they respond to each month, Benkula said the unit is more likely to be responding to claims than pushing preventative tactics.

“I hate to say it but we are far more reactive than we are proactive,” Benkula said.

The reason for that, Fowler said, is sheer volume.

Reactive refers to tips and information that are reported to them. Proactive investigations are the ones the investigators would initiate, such as setting up an undercover profile.

Since the start of January 2017, Benkula said the ICAC unit has made 30 arrests.

A recent example of the ICAC unit investigating crimes comes from Oct. 6 in Kootenai County. Brett Ayotte, 42, of Couer d’Alene was arrested on suspicion of sexual exploitation of a child. Joseph Law, 23, of Kuna, was arrested on Aug. 16 on suspicion of sexual exploitation of a child after the unit received a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

BURNING OUT WITH NO END IN SIGHT

In 2016 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had more than 8 million cybertips, Benkula said.

The unit is seeing an increase in tips with no end in sight, he said. One of the biggest issues for him, though, is the health of the investigators.

“If they’re not healthy or not in a good place, the investigations are going to be slacking in that,” he said.

Nationally, the average life of an ICAC investigator is one to three years.

“You can’t even train a guy in one year,” Fowler said. “It takes about three years for someone to be completely trained.”

The nature of the investigations include reviewing disturbing videos of crimes against children multiple times so they can testify in court to exactly what they saw. Some investigations require chats that become time-consuming and draining, he said.

To put into perspective how often the investigators are working these cases, Benkula said from January 2017 to September 2017 the ICAC unit had spent $20,000 in overtime to pay investigators from the unit and task force. Overtime pay comes from a federal grant.

“We could always use more investigators, but the more investigators you put on, the more cases you’re going to receive,” he said.

Fowler has been with the unit for about three years, and he gives credit to Benkula for implementing ways for him and other investigators to deal with what he said is called “repetitive trauma.”

“If you don’t take the splinter out, it’s going to get infected,” Benkula said. “And that’s what I worry about with my investigators.”

Benkula said he could say an easy fix to the problem is to hire more investigators to the unit. But he would rather have more funding to train other agencies who do not have as many resources currently to investigate these crimes, too.

“I’d like to see more help from smaller agencies,” Benkula said. Many of the agencies do not have the resources to investigate the way the unit does, but his hope is that they can eventually dedicate at least one detective to working those crimes, which would in turn decrease the units caseload and potentially stop more criminals sooner.

“The good thing is down the road some guy isn’t going to be able to do that again,” Fowler said. “That’s why we do what we do.”

Emily Lowe is the public safety reporter. Follow @EmLoweJourno on Twitter

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