Law enforcement agencies are turning to specially trained K9s to track down child predators.
K9s provide a variety of important functions for law enforcement, including tracking criminals on the run, searching for missing persons, and detecting drugs and bombs. One of their lesser-known virtues is their ability to catch child predators.
The Greenwich Police Department in north-central Ohio has acquired a K9 named Wren, who is specially trained to catch child predators after the small town experienced an uptick in child sex crimes.
Wren an electronic storage detection (ESD) dog, trained to detect electronic evidence of child sex crimes. She uses her scent to find items like electronic storage devices, cell phones, USB drives and SD cards.
Her handler, Officer Lance Seaman, said Wren looks for what is known as child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
“The village of Greenwich is a small village and unfortunately, in the past 18 months or so that I’ve been there, we’ve had several crimes that would involve electronics, search warrants and crimes against children,” Seaman told Richlandsource.com. “I have witnessed this stuff happening in my own zip code where people are using children to create illegal content and they’re uploading them to these popular pornographic websites.”
According to the DOJ, the internet has enabled a “historic rise” in the distribution of child pornography, an issue which has only gotten worse since the beginning of the pandemic.
Commander Dave Frattare of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) said the rise in reports is most likely due to increased exposure between offenders in the home and children as a result of lockdowns and working from home during the pandemic.
“It’s increased steadily since I’ve been here in 2009, but more so just in the last year and a half,” he said. “We really noticed a huge increase with more kids at home, more offenders at home.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Ohio is in the top five states for the number of tips submitted to its child sexual abuse cyber tip line.
Tips come from all over the internet, from social media companies as well as from the general public.
“Cyber tips come to us not only from companies like Facebook and Instagram, but they also might be sent in by law enforcement or members of general public who become aware of child exploitation or child sexual abuse situations that occur on the internet,” Frattare explained.
Frattare said that most of the tips are from the sharing of material rather than creating it, but that every time the content is shared, the child is victimized again, so it’s important to get a hold of that material.
From October 2020 to October 2021, the Ohio ICAC unit has carried out 1,284 investigations and executed 698 search warrants while working with local agencies. Based on evidence obtained during investigations, the unit has made 339 arrests and identified 94 child victims.
However, CSAM evidence can be incredibly hard to find, and that is where ESD K9s can come in handy. Oftentimes, predators will hide small electronic devices like thumb drives or micro-SD cards in clever places like false quarters. While a human may overlook key evidence, a trained ESD dog is unlikely to miss the scent.
ESD dogs are prepared for field work by undergoing hundreds of hours of scent-discrimination, open-area searches and realistic scenario training.
Based on verbal commands like “let’s go work,” Wren will begin sniffing. When she finds something, she sits and looks at Seaman, who then asks “show me.” Wren then puts her nose against the object or paws at where the scent is coming from to pinpoint the evidence. She is then rewarded with some treats.
“She absolutely loves to go into work,” Seaman said. “Once she hears ‘show me’ she knows a treat is coming.”
Because of the shortage of ESD dogs across the state, Seaman hopes Wren can provide her services to other agencies as well.
Other states are also making use of ESD dogs. In New Hampshire, ESD K9s Niko and Fleming accompany officers on two to four search warrants every week, and were responsible for finding evidence that brought down one of the state’s largest child exploitation rings.
The dogs can also bring much-needed emotional support to both victims and investigators, who often have to face or relive traumatic moments again and again.
Seaman hopes to one day have Wren trained to be a child victim therapy dog, who can comfort children who have to recount their experience to investigators or judges in court.