MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Tuesday is Safer Internet Day, a day celebrated around the world to bring awareness for the concerns surrounding Internet safety. Lieutenant Brooke Walker, the commander of the State Bureau of Investigation’s Special Victims Unit, said she and her team are focused on those concerns every day.
Walker also leads the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force. According to Walker, there are about 60 law enforcement agencies across Alabama that are members of ICAC and are responsible for reporting data on cyber crimes involving children to Walker’s team. In 2018, the agency received a total of 2,549 cybertips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That number reflects the number of issues reported by internet providers, concerned parents, community members, etc.
Issues can range from things like child pornography, both created by predators and created by the victims themselves, to sexual messages between adults and underage victims and even attempts by predators to coerce young victims into meeting with them in person.
Once the center receives the tips, it sends them to law enforcement in the state where the tip came from.
Walker said the 2,549 tips were double what the agency received in 2017.
“From 2016 to 2017, we saw about a 50 percent increase,” Walker said. “Last year, we saw an almost-100 percent increase.”
Those tips led to 255 investigations and 75 arrests in 2018. Walker attributes the drop-off in numbers to the task force’s reliance on the agencies, many of which are short-staffed, to report.
“I think our stats would definitely double, if not triple, if we had 100 percent reporting compliance,” Walker said. “But the fact is, I know those cases are getting worked. I see it in the news stories. I know the kids that are getting rescued when we send those tips out.”
Walker said the task force has more than 300 open cases, with agents working 30 or more of them. However, she said there is a back log in forensic evidence the task force needs to go through.
While the task force works to react to crimes committed against children, there is also a large emphasis placed on being proactive to avoid those crimes. Investigators and forensic experts across the state work undercover looking for predators who are sharing child pornography and trying to engage underage victims for inappropriate reasons.
In 2018, 842 law enforcement officers and 10 prosecutors attended training sessions hosted by the task force to help equip them to prevent, detect and work against this nature of crime. There were also nearly 70 presentations and public events held, where nearly 10,000 people attended.
“I beg parents to be more vigilant,” Walker said. “Not only in their real life, but also in their online life. They have to understand who they’re engaging with.”