As reports of online child exploitation go up, police are buckling down.
Internet child exploitation units across Canada are getting more tips, using new technology and forging partnerships to combat online child sexual abuse imagery.
"When I started, we were doing a little more than 200 investigations a year," says RCMP S/Sgt. Scott Lambie, who's overseen the Saskatchewan Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit for nearly four years. "Now we're looking at closer to 500 so it's expanding very rapidly."
Last year, the RCMP-run National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre (NCECC) received more than 61,000 complaints — a 616 per cent increase since 2014.
To tackle the volume of cases, police work together while investigating online child sexual abuse imagery. Integrated units, like many ICE units, contain RCMP and municipal police officers allowing forces to share resources on investigations.
"The co-operation allows us to be a province-wide police unit," says Lambie, whose unit includes officers from Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina.
In British Columbia, the ICE unit created a provincial strategy to provide local RCMP detachments with training and guidance on online child exploitation cases. The approach helps B.C. ICE with its large case load.
"We're trying to be proactive with our members so when they get these files they have the training and knowledge to investigate," says Sgt. Natalie Davis, an investigator with the B.C. ICE unit.
Sharing resources is especially helpful when conducting searches.
"We're looking for something as small as a memory stick and it's important to have enough people to do a search, and gather and maintain evidence properly," says Sgt. Chad Norman with the Newfoundland and Labrador ICE unit, which includes officers from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.
If officers find a device suspected to contain child sexual abuse imagery, forensic technologists collect data and use software to scan the content. The program categorizes images to limit the time officers are exposed to the explicit materials.
Using specialized technology doesn't mean investigators abandon traditional police work.
"You have to be a good interviewer, you have to be a good statement taker, you have to be a good search warrant writer and be able to follow the evidence," says Lambie. "We use technology to help us."
Tips to ICE units often come from the NCECC, which gets some information from the U.S. National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. American websites are required to submit suspected illegal material to the centre.
While many investigations start as tips, ICE units conduct proactive enforcement posing as young people or like-minded predators on chat rooms, social media and many other online services.
"If they know there's children on it, they will exploit the website to lure children or commit other offences," says Davis.
The undercover operations are effective, but the work is demanding. Officers must bring the work home and be ready to respond as their online persona any time.
"It requires the investigator to be flexible and they have to be well trained," says Norman.
Throughout the operation, officers follow investigative protocol, avoid inducing an individual to commit an offence and keep their supervisor up to date.
"Almost all the files we get through this work are urgent and we need to deal with them right away," says Davis.
Due to the vast number of cases, police prioritize incidents where children face imminent danger. If they arise, police act fast.
When officers learned two Canadian children faced immediate danger, it was all hands on deck. A few days after the tip came in, the Saskatchewan and Alberta ICE units rescued two children and arrested two people in cities 1,000 kilometres apart.
"We identified offenders and got the kids to safety in under a week," says Lambie. "It was incredible."