Online cops nab sex offenders
Men who show up for meetings are charged with importuning and attempted unlawful conduct with a minor.
XENIA, Ohio (AP) -- Detective Darrin Barlow thumbs through teen magazines in the doctor's office waiting room. He tunes in to MTV at home.
Barlow is studying for his job posing as minors on the Internet who can be targets for adults seeking sex. He and another officer in this small southwest Ohio town have gotten so good at arresting people who show up for meetings they arrange online that about 60 departments across the country have come to them for training.
Since 2000, the two Xenia officers have arrested 68 men who showed up for meetings -- often at malls or stores -- with the detectives' online personalities.
"They're very good at disguising themselves as boys or girls," Capt. Scott Anger said. "A lot of it came from just on-the-job doing it, getting used to the Internet lingo. They were able to quickly pick up the buzz phrases."
The Hamilton Police Department, north of Cincinnati, sent detectives to Xenia for training after getting numerous complaints about Internet sexual predators.
"We didn't know how to do this," Detective Mark Hayes said.
Since they launched their own Internet unit in 2002, Hamilton police have arrested 56 people.
Detective Jim McCarty of the Owensboro, Ky., Police Department came to Xenia in 2003 for a weeklong training session.
"I've mirrored a great deal of what they've told me," he said.
Picking up the lingo
McCarty, 41, said he picks up lingo and teenage culture tidbits by talking with two teenage boys who live across the street and his 11-year-old daughter.
"That helps," he said. "She gives me lessons on clothes."
Barlow said he teaches other officers to create screen names and online profiles, what to say and how to say it, and some teen lingo.
The two Xenia detectives, among 45 in the city, started their Internet operation after they discovered that an online porn case in California had connections to Xenia.
"We thought if that's actually going on in our city, we need to look into this a little further," Barlow recalled. "We kind of threw together an old computer. Two weeks into it, the floodgates opened. It was like unbelievable what was out there."
The men who have shown up for meetings are charged with importuning and attempted unlawful conduct with a minor, both felonies.
Jeff Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, has concerns about the practice.
"What the statute encourages is for the police to go out and entrap people," Gamso said.
But Anger said the law gives his detectives the authority to do what they do.
"We have very strict mechanisms in place to make sure that our officers do not entrap anybody," he said. "We play by the rules. We want our cases to be solid."
Anger said arranging a meeting with travelers, the name the detectives use for offenders, sometimes takes five or six chats over three weeks and other times happens on the first chat.
"We're getting people that would be doing this somewhere else if they're not doing it in Xenia," Anger said. "We're certain that these people are predators. They're people that if they're not dealt with, they're going to continue to target our kids."
Xavier Von Erck, director of perverted-justice.com, a Portland, Ore.-based Web site and watchdog group that tries to find and stop people who prey on minors over the Internet, said special police units like the one in Xenia are on the rise and arrest frequency has increased significantly in recent years.
"The problem of chat solicitation -- or Internet solicitation in general -- is nearly at epidemic levels and will only get worse as more homes get Internet access," Von Erck said in an e-mail.
The National Center for Missing & amp; Exploited Children has stepped up its online-predator training for law enforcement.
Last year, the center received 2,605 reports of online enticement of children for sexual acts, up from 2,123 the year before.
"These people, it seems, are not going to stop on their own," said Staca Urie, supervisor of the center's exploited-child unit.
Barlow said one secret to the Xenia detectives' success is being dedicated enough to be online every day to avoid raising suspicions among their target audience.
A few hours each day they chat online, using computer shorthand often adopted by teens, such as "lol" for laugh out loud, "brb" for be right back and "g2g" for got to go.
Most of their online chatting is done outside of work hours. But the detectives soon will be able to get overtime pay, hire a third investigator and increase training for other departments, thanks to a $100,000 federal grant.