Psychologists help Utah's Internet porn cops cope

Oct 26 2013 - 6:27pm

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LAYTON -- They are all different. Sitting in a bare-walled conference room in the bowels of the Layton Police Department, Utah Internet Crimes Against Children officer Riley Richins acknowledges that truth. 

There are the collectors. They are the ones who download and store thousands of child porn files on their computers. There are the apprehensive. Perhaps due to a guilt tugging at their conscience or some other lingering hesitancy, they download and delete, download and delete. Sometimes months pass between offenses. 

There are some who recognize the damage their addiction has wreaked on the lives of others. They understand the children they view are vulnerable, breathing humans -- people. Likewise, there are others who believe they've done nothing wrong. 

And, of course, there are many who defy easy categorization. 

But there is one trait shared by most of the hundreds of people Richins has investigated for child porn or other Internet-related child sex crimes. 

"It's a very, very secret life these offenders are living," he said. 

"These offenders are living in good, well-established communities and homes. And you walk into their homes, and it's a very well-kept home. To meet this guy on the street, you'd have no idea what he was doing."

With offenders blended so seamlessly into society, their crimes taking place behind locked doors, it is Richins' job to expose their secrets. The need for people like Richins has exploded in the last decade, as the Internet has grown into a global force.

Section Chief of ICAC Jessica Farnsworth said that when the task force was born, around the turn of the millennium, it consisted only of a commander, one full-time officer and one part-time officer. Now, about 70 ICAC officers are working throughout the state. 

According to numbers Farnsworth provided, ICAC conducted 1,330 investigations in 2012 and has conducted 1,473 through August of this year, resulting in hundreds of search warrants and at least 212 arrests. 

And that is just from pursuing the most serial offenders -- a triage of sorts, necessitated by finite resources.   

"My eyes were opened when I started on the task force and I started investigating cases," said Richins, one of two ICAC officers who investigate Layton cases. 

"There are a lot more people than I thought there were online, viewing child pornography, downloading it, sharing it. People enticing children, soliciting them."

Exacting a toll

As he became aware of the volume of child porn available on the Internet, Richins also came to understand the toll viewing it can take on those tasked with putting offenders behind bars. 

In most cases, ICAC officers must view the porn twice, Richins said -- once to establish probable cause for a search warrant or arrest, then again when the case against the offender is being finalized. 

"That's probably the hardest thing of this job, is to have to view that stuff," he said. "The ICAC investigators, we're exposed to these heinous crimes. ... You have to put up those barriers in your mind to try to deal with it."

The natural human reaction is to allow oneself to become numb to the child porn, whose descriptions in court documents are enough to elicit revulsion. And though keeping an emotional distance is the only way to survive several years on the task force, each officer must toe a delicate balance.

While struggling to internalize what they see, they must also remember the victims, the real lives being devastated each time child porn is downloaded and shared.  

"It's important to realize these are real, human children being victimized," Richins said. "... When you see it so much, you're desensitized to these being real kids. At that point, that's when the psychologist comes into play and you get help from them, for sure."

Mental health

Since its inception, ICAC has implemented measures to ensure the mental health of its officers. However, Farnsworth said, the methods of how best to do that have evolved.  

"When ICAC was first formed, the main concern was officers would become addicted," Farnsworth said. "We've found instead that officers can develop vicarious trauma."

Symptoms of vicarious trauma, Farnsworth said, include complacency and avoiding doing the job. Though those effects disappear when an afflicted officer is reassigned, a psychologist is available for ICAC officers to prevent it in the first place. The psychologist sees officers three times a year, and sessions are more of an evaluation tool to ensure officers are OK.  

Despite the toll taken on ICAC officers, the turnover rate is low, Farnsworth said, with officers typically serving from three to eight years.

"Our task force is very tight and team-oriented," Richins said. "We're able to talk to them about our feelings and what's going on. So it's not just me, alone, dealing with it."

Having to view child porn is not the only part of the job that is mentally strenuous. In offenders, officers see a side of humanity many people never encounter, except through the lens of news reports and television screens. 

Dangerous path

Richins keenly understands the path that transforms a person from a normal member of society to what some would call a monster. 

"The majority of cases, the root cause is adult porn," Richins said. "Someone doesn't just wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to look at child porn,' or 'I'm going to chat online with a 13-year-old kid.' It's the sexual appetite from looking at adult porn that gets their brain going."

Most offenders, Richins said, even understand that acting on that sexual appetite comes with risk. The urge in many instances just pulls too strong, like a high from a drug. 

"The majority of my suspects I interview have told me, 'I was waiting for the day you knocked on my door. I knew it was going to happen eventually,' " Richins said. "... The wiring in their brain is a bit different."

With so much child porn easily available, and so many offenders, Farnsworth and Richins acknowledged it's impossible for ICAC to keep up. Most small-scale offenders go unscathed because the task force simply doesn't have the manpower or budget to go after them. 

"The ICAC task force is a very intelligent, well-trained, sophisticated team," Richins said. 

"We do a great job. Is there room for more? Yes. With the amount of cases that are out there, we could all use more investigators. Is that reasonable within a budget? Probably not."

Knowing the limitations of law enforcement and the prevalence of Internet sex crimes, Richins, despite a hope that officers can eventually win the battle, concedes it's unlikely people who exploit children will ever be completely stopped. "The reality of it is, the Internet is very powerful, and there are so many people around the world that are manufacturing and sharing child porn," he said. 

"There's so many people out there, I don't know that we can ever make it go away. We can definitely make dents into it, but I don't know that it will ever go away."

Contact reporter Bubba Brown at 801-625-4221 or bbrown@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @BubbaBrownSE.

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