BARTOW, Fla. — When a single Florida county arrested 45 men and boys from all walks of life last June on charges of downloading child pornography, some people worried the place had become a haven for deviants.
But top law enforcement officials and child welfare experts say the only thing unusual about Polk County is that its sheriff, Grady Judd, happens to pursue child-porn enthusiasts with more fervor and resources than most.
Child porn has grown so pervasive on the Internet, they say, that police agencies all over the country, using the latest file-tracking technology, could easily spend every day finding and arresting offenders.
"Today, it's truly like shooting fish in a barrel," said Judd, who has directed four child pornography roundups since 2006, resulting in at least 176 arrests in Polk County, a patchwork of orange groves, phosphate mines, modest towns and a half-million people between Tampa and Orlando. The biggest city is Lakeland, population 90,000.
Mike Phillips, chief of the computer crimes section at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Polk's sheer number of child pornography arrests in recent years is almost unheard of nationally for a single agency.
Judd, whose sheriff's office houses the Internet Crimes Against Children task force for central Florida, has made sure his detectives have gotten the specialized training needed to identify and catch people who download the illegal material from the Internet. He notes that much of the legwork in the latest sweep was done by just two or three detectives, though more were required when deputies raided suspects' homes.
The popular and media-friendly Judd, who when he needs guidance is as likely to reach for the Bible on his desk as he is to go flipping through the Florida criminal code, said his crusade against child porn comes from his fervent commitment to protect children. An "old vice guy," he was arresting child pornographers when they were still trading in magazines and paper photographs.
"We are absolutely committed and send a clear message that if you engage in child pornography, if you're trying to lure children online, we are going to seek you out, chase you to the ends of the earth and put you in jail," the 55-year-old sheriff said.
Child pornography has exploded as Internet use has become commonplace. Experts say the images increasingly seem to feature younger children — infants and toddlers — being molested for the cameras in more violent and egregious ways. Most are abused and photographed by a parent, relative or someone else in a position of trust.
In this era of lean budgets, many law enforcement agencies don't have the time, resources or inclination to aggressively pursue such crimes, experts say.
"Once you get the training and the resources, it's very easy to pick these guys off, but law enforcement already has such problematic crimes competing for police resources," said Keith Durkin, an Ohio Northern University sociology professor and frequent witness for the federal Internet Crimes Against Children task force.
Harold Copus, a former FBI agent who has extensively investigated child pornography cases, took a harder line on law enforcement efforts.
"It is spotty and totally inconsistent," Copus said. "And it comes down to commitment and, quite frankly, laziness. There's no pressure" from the public.
Phillips, the Florida computer crimes chief, said that because of limited resources, the June roundup was aimed at some of the worst offenders — those trading the most images or suspected of abusing children. The 45 people arrested had amassed up to 15,000 images.
Salesman, teacher, pilot
Those arrested included a 50-year-old car salesman, a 62-year-old retired teacher, a 34-year-old pilot, a 43-year-old truck driver and a 22-year-old Sea World employee. Some had long criminal records. Others had none. Three were high school students.
"We have looked at the enemy, and he is us," said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Computer analysts at the center investigate about 2,000 reports a week of suspected child pornography that come in from the public and online service providers. Tips to the center rose from 3,160 in 1998 to 101,748 in 2008, mirroring the spread of everyday Internet use, and analysts there have documented millions of images online.
Child pornography arrests by the 59 federally funded Internet Crimes Against Children task forces topped 3,000 last year for the first time, nearly double the number reported just four years ago.
Authorities ultimately will have to do more than slap handcuffs on people who make and view child pornography, said Andrew Oosterbaan, chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Public health issue
"This is not just a law enforcement issue," he said. "This is not just about people doing something illegal and therefore we have to stop it. It's making people understand why this is more of a societal issue, why this is more of a public health issue."
Judd, who has battled adult bookstores and prostitution with similar zeal, gets angry just talking about the people who trade in the horrific images of child abuse.
He tells the story of one man caught in bed with a teen daughter when deputies barged in with a search warrant. Then there is the graphic online slideshow offering fathers step-by-step instructions for molesting their children.
"It is something we must wake up to," Judd said. "And we are asleep at the wheel as a nation."
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