Child pornography arrests rise in Southern Utah and beyond as enforcement action increases

Stock image | Photo by Chalabala/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Child pornography arrests have nearly doubled in Utah over the last five years – mirroring a national trend – as investigators at local, state and federal agencies deploy sophisticated tactics to catch more criminals.

In 2013, police across the state arrested 133 people accused of downloading child pornography, and by 2018, that number jumped to 226, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Experts say rapid technological developments are making it easier for people to find the images while also helping investigators catch violators.

In Southern Utah, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has also had an increase in child pornography cases, Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Crouse said. He said the increase could be the result of greater public awareness, as well as an increase in the number of investigations sent to the Sheriff’s Office by Internet Crimes Against Children, a federal task force also referred to as ICAC.

“The Attorney General’s Office sends cases down through ICAC if it is taking place in Washington County, and we have several active cases in our office right now that still need to be reviewed,” Crouse said.

Beyond ICAC, Crouse said there are a number of other agencies involved in some level of the investigative process, including the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Stock image | Photo courtesy of the FBI, St. George News

These are difficult investigations that are not only labor-intensive but can also be hard on detectives, Crouse said, many of whom have children of their own. As such, the detectives also work other types of cases to reduce the effects the child exploitation cases can have on them. There are, however, investigators who work exclusively on crimes against children.

“Bless the investigators at the Attorney General’s Office and ICAC that investigate these crimes every day,” Crouse said.

One particular case stands out for Crouse. In early 2018, the Sheriff’s Office announced it was dealing with the largest child pornography case the county had ever handled up to that point after authorities discovered hundreds of images and videos of child pornography on a St. George man’s computer that depicted sex acts with infants as young as 6 months old.

Police: Hundreds of videos depicting sex acts with infants found on St. George man’s computer

Dixie State University’s Department of Public Safety has also teamed up with the ICAC in an official capacity as of last month, Dixie State Police Chief Blair Barfuss said.

Even though Dixie State’s involvement just became official, Barfuss said that he and Dixie State Police Sgt. Ron Briggs have nearly 20 years of experience working cases involving crimes against children, most of which came through their involvement with ICAC, which is where the two met each other. Their work on these cases is usually contracted by other law enforcement agencies and does not involve students or faculty at Dixie State.

Barfuss said the increasing number of child pornography cases in Utah is the result of concerted law enforcement efforts.

Utah allocates an enormous amount of funding and resources to cases involving crimes against children, he said, and since case numbers are provided by law enforcement, the numbers are naturally going to be higher. States with less funding may not have the ability to fund a task force or even dedicate officers to investigate child pornography or other similar crimes, Barfuss explained, so their case numbers may be low and appear to remain static, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their child exploitation problem is any less severe than Utah’s.

A Dixie State University Police unit responds to an incident in St. George, Utah, Dec. 7, 2018 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“Anytime you increase enforcement in an area, the numbers naturally increase,” he said, “and we’ve got some really active agencies across the state that put a lot of effort and time into these cases, and they make a lot of arrests.”

Child pornography is not confined to a particular state or geographical area, Barfuss said, explaining that the problem is growing “everywhere.”

In Iron County, Sheriff Ken Carpenter told St. George News he isn’t aware of any recent increase in child pornography cases under his jurisdiction but added the Cedar City Police Department also handles a number of such cases.

The Sheriff’s Office does assist with child exploitation cases — Carpenter brought up a case from last year in which eight people were arrested in connection with a multiagency operation involving men allegedly conspiring to commit child rape, an investigation he was involved in while serving as Parowan police chief.

Read more: 7th man arrested in child sex case, wanted 13-year-old girls to run away with him

The men were each arrested after arriving at an undisclosed location in northern Iron County to meet 13-year-old girls with whom they had allegedly arranged to have sex.

Carpenter said these kinds of crimes are increasing across the U.S.

Child pornography crimes beyond Utah

The problem of child pornography extends well beyond the beehive state. Child pornography has been the No. 1 child exploitation offense since the early 2000s. In that time, there has been an exponential increase in the number of arrests for child pornography, making it one of the fastest growing crimes in the U.S., according to the FBI.

The FBI says more than 424,00 missing children were entered into the National Crime Information Center in 2018 | Image courtesy of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, St. George News

In the U.S., an estimated 50,000 people are believed to be actively trading child pornography at any given time in what is estimated to be a $20 billion black-market industry, according to a 2014 report by the Journal of Digital Forensics and Security.

Since its inception more than 35 years ago, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has received nearly 43 million reports, reviewed 267 million images and helped local law enforcement agencies identify 15,800 victims of child sexual exploitation.

The U.S. State Department estimates that more than a million children are exploited each year in the global commercial sex trade, which is in addition to the untold number of young victims of noncommercial sexual exploitation.

Waging battle in the ever-changing cyber environment

In the 1980s, child pornography trafficking was nearly eliminated in the U.S. due to targeted campaigns of law enforcement. The production and distribution of these materials was a difficult task, and the number of individuals involved were numerically few and isolated in society, according to the Journal of Digital Forensics and Security’s report.

However, that all changed with the rise of the internet.

The expansion of cyberspace has made the production and distribution of child pornography much easier for criminals but more difficult for law enforcement to investigate.

Constant monitoring and collection of data has become increasingly difficult in the face of vast amounts of data and the use of cloud services that don’t use physical servers, making the transfer of images and data “virtually untraceable,” according to a 2014 U.S. Court Sentencing Commission report.

Even so, new tactics are constantly being developed to assist investigators, including one adopted by the FBI that involves taking over suspects’ online identities to infiltrate private groups sharing and disturbing illegal content on social media platforms.

Google has also joined in the effort by scanning emails and search requests on its site to detect and report child pornography, a herculean task considering there are more than 1.5 billion Gmail users worldwide. Once detected, Google actively removes the material from both search and Gmail and immediately reports the matter to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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