Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

RCMP troll Net to nab predators

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SURREY, B.C. -- To a young teenager's eyes, the invitation from an online male suitor seems relatively harmless at first: Perhaps you'd like to cuddle, talk, play games?

Five minutes into the chat, the 27-year-old from the Metro Vancouver area asks if she has a "BF." He then casually mentions porn.

I'm 13 years old, she reminds the man. She posts a blushing smiley-face emoticon.

Ten more minutes in, she clicks open a digital image he's just sent her way. The photo is not his face, but another body part, standing at attention. It scores the man a rendezvous, but not with the teenybopper he imagined.

"It's probably the most meaningful work I can do in the force," said the RCMP constable and mother of two, who was the man's actual chat partner.

She sends officers knocking at the man's door, and he is later convicted of luring and invitation to sexual touching in a B.C. court.

"When you get a guilty plea... there is a sense of justice."

Posing as a youngster to catch predators is a relatively new strategy British Columbia RCMP are using to proactively keep children safe. It's one of many tasks performed by officers in the Surrey-based Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, or ICE, rating somewhat less repugnant than other duties that have sent cops running to the bathroom to vomit.

Cases involving hard drives crammed with toddler rape photographs and attackers live-streaming sexual assaults on five-year-olds jostle for resources that might also go toward pursuing Canadian child sex tourists in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Domestic crimes compete for the finite time, energies and mental health of the 12 members who staff B.C.'s ICE unit -- a reality advocates for the more complex overseas files don't begrudge. Visiting several restricted areas of the otherwise plain-looking office buildings provides a lens into the dedication and grit of the close-knit team members who subject themselves daily to children's suffering because they're compelled to make that pain go away.

"A lot of people ask that question, how can you do this job?" the female constable told The Canadian Press during an interview watched over by two of her superior officers.

"When I'm chatting online I'm able to separate myself somewhat. But when you interview a victim, it tugs at your heart."

The officer, whose name is withheld at the request of the RCMP, works in an enclosed office on as many as five computer monitors as her 11-year-old daughter and five-year-old son smile down at her from photos on a nearby corkboard.

She has more than a decade's experience in policing and has also presided as a coroner. She said she copes with the disturbing work by maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle -- eating right, appreciating her good co-workers and having a "twisted" sense of humour.

"If someone is masturbating before me on a web cam, I think it's disgusting," she said. "But you have a job to do and you do it."

Officers hired into the unit are pre-screened and exposed to lower-end images of child sexual abuse to see if they have a stomach for the distress.

They undergo an intense psychological exam beforehand, and then see a professional every six months.

They needn't have particular expertise; instead what counts is an interest in protecting children and perhaps work on similar files in the past.

Staff Sgt. Bev Csikos leads a team of two corporals, nine constables, two analysts and two technical crime unit support members on a $2-million annual budget.

The unit provides its unique expertise on Internet-based child exploitation to support 131 detachments across the province.

The 23-year police veteran was a strong plainclothes investigator who worked on the serial killer Robert Pickton case long before joining ICE in 2008. She took over in 2011.

The team rescued one child in her first year, while last year they saved upwards of 40.

"If there's one message," she said, directing her comment at parents, "get that computer out of the bedroom."


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2012 A23

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