BEMIDJI – The term “task force,” originally coined by the Royal Navy to describe small groups of vessels charged with a specific task, has taken on a life of its own stateside and elsewhere.
Task forces exist to investigate a variety of criminalities - gangs, drugs, weapons, abuse, neglect. They compile information on perpetrators, execute search warrants and bring criminals to justice. But for the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC), the duty is simple.
“The true mission is to rescue children who are being victimized,” said Donald Cheung, Commander of the Minnesota ICAC, as it is known in law enforcement circles.
But it’s a bit more than that. The task force exists to prevent victimization and, in the case of ICAC’s new affiliation with the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, to be the first responder to Internet-related predators and child pornography crimes in the Bemidji area.
“It’s a learning process that we’re going to start with, and we’re going to hopefully get more efficient at it,” said Beltrami Chief Deputy Ernie Beitel. “We have to remember that every telephone or cell phone out there, it’s just a little computer that we talk on, and it all contains data. It’s learning how to extract data.”
The affiliation, officially announced at the Feb. 5 meeting of the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners, includes the supplying of computer equipment to the sheriff’s office, and training of Beltrami sheriff’s investigator. That investigator, who is currently undergoing training, will be the lead in any forensic examinations of digital devices.
Such evidence gathering, as required by investigations in Beltrami County, Bemidji, neighboring counties or from tribal law enforcement agencies, will be entered into the ICAC database. And for every hour the investigator spends delving into cases for other agencies, ICAC will reimburse the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office.
“Again, it’s a task force that we belong to. So we’re going to be tapping the talents from other agencies,” Beitel said. “But we hope to be able to start the process here in our own agency, not only for our needs, but for other jurisdictions.”
In 2011, the task force arrested more than 150 people who were either trading or possessing child pornography, or actively soliciting children for sex, according to Cheung. Those arrests were the direct result of two methods of evidence gathering utilized by ICAC: cyber tips and proactive investigations.
Tips come from a variety of sources, but many come from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. As a kind of federal ICAC, the center acts as a filtering apparatus for reports of solicitation of children or trading of child porn. If a tip leads to a Minnesota IP address, phone number, resident or location, ICAC is notified.
ICAC receives about 100 tips per day from the national center.
“They report to us where these kids are located, and if there’s one in Beltrami County, we’re going to call them and say ‘look, we have a kid there who could potentially fall victim to somebody,’” Cheung said. “There’s more and more people utilizing technology daily, so we have no shortage of work.”
Tips also come from Internet service providers and employees of websites. A 2008 federal law made it a felony for ISPs to fail to report knowledge of child porn or solicitation, giving ICAC and agencies like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children another weapon.
“Right now the flavor of the month is, we have a lot of cyber tips coming in from meetme.com,” Cheung said. “We have a lot of high school kids using meetme.com as a social networking website to meet other people. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids are posting compromising pictures online.”
The Beltrami County investigator currently training as part of the ICAC affiliation won’t necessarily take part in proactive investigations - where law enforcement pose as children to snare predators - but that’s beyond the point, according to Beitel.
“Initially, it’s baby steps,” he said. “But there may be things that end up here. And we’re going to be helping if there’s anything that needs to be forensically examined.”
In the case of 19-year-old Michael Gabrelcik, of Bemidji, the new affiliation might ease the workload for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which runs ICAC. Gabrelcik is serving a 12-year sentence for sexually assaulting an 11-year-old. After going to prison, he was charged with possessing child porn in February. His cell phone was sent to BCA headquarters after it was confiscated by authorities in Bemidji, but prior to his conviction for the sexual assault charge. Months passed before enough evidence was gathered to charge him with possessing child porn.
In the future, evidence gathering on such devices might be handled here, instead of the Cities, where law enforcement agencies from across the state send electronics to be forensically examined.
“Our hope is that we’ll be better prepared to do that here,” Beitel said. “There are experts in this, and we hope to be able to use their knowledge for our use here and for further investigation.”
While the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, ICAC and its new affiliation with the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office represent the front line defenders of children, Cheung said parents must be vigilant.
“Kids out there know how to use technology better than their parents,” he said. “And parents are reluctant to scrutinize their kids and how they use technology.”
Beltrami County’s new relationship with ICAC will bring one more level of protection for children, according to Cheung.
“Every affiliate member that’s sent to get this particular training, when they come back they realize, holy cow, I had no idea these kinds of crimes were going on in our community,” he said “The true impact is, for affiliated agencies who come back from training, they can recognize the crime and serve their community much better.”