January 18, 2009
Child porn arrests: Questions, and answers
This weekend should have been one of Gary Becker's best.
The mayor of Racine campaigned long and hard for the election of Barack Obama, then the very junior senator from Illinois, who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. In February, Becker sat in the front row of VIPs when Obama spoke to a packed Memorial Hall. And he led the cheering at Buckets Pub when Racine County Democrats celebrated his winning the nomination.
But now, as Washington is overrun with millions of people invited to Obama's historic inauguration Tuesday as the 44th President of the United States, Becker is nowhere to be seen; presumably under virtual house arrest after his actual arrest Tuesday night on sordid charges involving attempted sexual assault of a child, and child pornography.
Many questions remain unanswered. For example: How can someone be charged with attempted sexual assault of a child when no child was involved -- merely a cop pretending to be a child? How can authorities know that the pictures on Becker's computer are of children? What about that copy of Becker's first hard drive, kept by an IT technician since August 2007 -- surely, there's something wrong there? How prevalent are these sexual predator stings in Wisconsin? And what's the usual result?
We spoke to Bill Cosh, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation, and Mike Nieskes, Racine County District Attorney, to get some answers. Neither would speak directly about the ongoing investigation, but here's what we learned.
Q. How can someone be charged with attempting to have sex with a child under age 16, when there was no such child involved at all?
A. "That doesn't bar you at all: impossibility is not a defense. It's a long-standing issue in Wisconsin law. If you look at the theory behind it, the fact that an individual is willing to take steps (to commit such a crime), there's a public policy that it's in the state's interest to prevent them from taking those steps. Appellate courts have had no problem with this approach," said Nieskes.
Q. Without knowing when a picture was taken, or of whom, how can authorities be certain the subject was under-age?
A. "Basically, they work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) where they have identified actual children. One of the things our analyst does is go into the hard drive and analyze the pictures. If they find a new picture, they pass that on to the national center. (For example,) maybe last year in California they figured out that this picture is someone in California sent to Wisconsin," said Cosh.
Nieskes said the NCMEC database in Alexandria, VA, has more than one million images in which the child has been identified. "In June 2007, we had a case of suspected child porn at the Racine Library, with images downloaded on on his phone. We sent the images to NCMEC and they were able to identify them." Identification is done via computers that read the pixels, according to Nieskes. "They're able to identify these photos fairly rapidly."
In addition, sometimes law enforcement learns the identity of picture subjects during an investigation: "A 13-year-old says her boyfriend took images, and they recover them." A third method is through forensic examination of the photos: "By measuring the heights and the physical development," Nieskes said. "There have been studies and there are people in the field of forensic anthropology."
Q. What about that copy of Becker's 2007 hard drive kept by an IT technician for 17 months? Shouldn't what he found have been turned over to police immediately?
A. "I haven't thought of that issue. I haven't reviewed it in that context," said Nieskes.
Q. Have we had other sex sting cases here?
A. "Not for a while," said Nieskes. "When they (the state) started, there was a number that came through Racine, 35 to 38 of them, financed through government funds through the Department of Criminal Investigation. The way that developed, when they started they were looking for a county willing to do the prosecutions. We indicated we were willing to prosecute. And then there came a time when those funds stopped. We've had a number of arrests, some in the last few years; most came when parents found their own child chatting online and brought in law enforcement," Nieskes said.
Nieskes also recalled "Operation Falcon," where a child porn ring in the Soviet Union was broken, and the credit card numbers of U.S. porn purchasers were recovered.
Q. How many case of child pornography and crimes against children has the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigations handled?
"We have done many of these cases for over a decade and arrested many travelers (men who drive somewhere to have sex with under-age children). Most of the online cases we do are through tips received from other ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) task forces, referrals from local law enforcement, parents or the Cyber Tip Line referrals. Very few of the cases we do now are self-generated due to the volume of cases we are working," said Cosh.
The national network of ICAC task forces was begun in 1998. According to a 2007 report by
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, the state is aware of over 15,445 individual Wisconsin IP addresses willing to share known child pornography. The report also said that one in seven kids online are asked by an adult "to engage in sexual activities, or sexual talk or give personal sexual information," and in 31% of these instances attempts are made for off-lline contact with the kids.
The Wisconsin ICAC Task Force had a slow start: no more than 38 arrests per year in its first six years of operation, from 1999 through 2004. But in 2005 it had 120 arrests, 109 in 2006 and 108 in 2007. Incomplete 2008 DCI figures show 93 arrests from 332 documented complaints; 233 involved child pornography and the rest were traveler, enticement, obscenity directed at minors and child prostitution cases. A detailed database of prosecutions shows no acquittals, and sentences after trial or plea ranging from probation for child porn possession to 20 years and more.
Budget for the Wisconsin ICAC effort is $1,137,312 in FY 2009. The unit has 14 employees: seven agents, six forensic scientists and one forensic analyst. Twenty-four county and city police departments are listed as "affiliates" of the state ICAC unit; none are from Racine County.