Hunting porn, image by image - by Catherine Porter Back   Home  
Law demands all evidence be viewed Child pornography disturbs even seasoned officers
It's 9 a.m. Beneath the glare of fluorescent lights, Detective Constable John Smith is trawling through photos of child pornography on his laptop.

At the same time, he is monitoring two flickering televisions stationed atop a filing cabinet, playing movies at high speed. Brown cardboard boxes from recent busts are piled around his desk.

He's on his third hour, methodically categorizing a collection belonging to a professor he recently arrested. He has uncovered more than 10,000 videos, photographs and stories on one computer alone. The house, he says, had four machines.

"The Criminal Code states it's illegal if the child is under 18. Do you think that girl is under 18?" he says, looking up from a photo of a hollow-eyed blond performing sexual acts far beyond her years. Her thin body is only just budding breasts. "We both know she is. But I can't prove that in court. So we give him the benefit of the doubt."

He marks in his notebook beneath the heading "adult pornography," and clicks on the next in an endless row of documents on his screen.

It opens to a home movie. A child appears, bound like a lamb being carted to slaughter. Thin wrists and ankles are handcuffed together and to a long bar, exposing her vagina. A black sack covers her head, and a giant hand reaches into her, over and over again.

Without pausing, he marks again in his notebook this time beneath the heading "child pornography."

He will do this more than 3,000 times by the end of his shift at 3 p.m., pushing each image from his mind as quickly as it dissolves from his screen. But a crack forms in his professional detachment when the screen fills with the blurry image of a teenager undressing. The boy pulls down his pants, bounces around and dresses again.

Smith begins to laugh. He can't help it. It's his way of coping with the factory line of bruising images he is forced to inspect each day, sorting out the clearly illegal from the arguably legal.

So are his late-night games of hockey, looking into his infant son's brown eyes and the thought of putting just one of the men who make these images and touch these children, just one of them, behind bars.

The Ontario Provincial Police's Project P unit is the largest and oldest child pornography-fighting team in the country. It is also the most effective. In the recent Operation Avalanche, which tracked thousands of customers from a Texas child-porn Web site around the world, Project P officers scored a 10 per cent arrest rate. Sound like a failing grade? Compare that to the national average of 4.2.

Which makes it one of the least rewarding and most psychologically gruelling postings in modern police work.

"In homicides you see some pretty gory images. But children are living, breathing vulnerable individuals who are being violated to the absolute extreme," says Project P's leader, Detective Inspector Bob Matthews.

Add to that the fact that most of the victims are, unlike in homicide cases, rarely found. Neither are their abusers.

"You feel so helpless because you can't put a name to the children and stop what happens to them," Matthews says. "I've often thought about whatever became of the poor kids."

Then there is the quantity. Since Matthews took over 15 years ago, his unit's caseload has exploded from a handful of suspects each year to 30 weekly complaints and busts that uncover thousands of images.

The difference: the Internet. Borders and distances that separate producers and consumers of child porn are erased with a single tap of a computer key.

Only a handful of officers are equipped to dismantle the widening web of exploitation. That's partly due to funding. Project P runs on a budget of only $1.4 million, which translates to roughly 12 positions. But, each morning when Smith pulls into the desolate parking lot outside their Keele St. and Highway 401 headquarters, he is met by no more than six colleagues. Two have taken maternity leave, two transferred to other units, and one flat-out quit. Replacing them is no easy task. There are few officers who want to drive into Smith's job every morning.

Before Smith donned his uniform nine years ago, he was a teacher like his mother. But he found it too confining. So, he followed his father into the OPP. At 33, he now has his own family. He didn't when he transferred to Project P 20 months ago.

"Most of the people in this unit started when they didn't have children. Once you have a child, it becomes more personal."

Smith's alarm sounds each morning at 4 a.m. He sneaks out of the bedroom to pull on clothes set out the previous night so he doesn't disturb his sleeping wife. Then, kissing her and their newborn son goodbye, he leaves their Barrie home and drives to work. Sometimes he goes directly to Project P offices. Other times the drive can be as far as Thunder Bay, to meet with a defence lawyer or to conduct a search warrant. He sees each case through from tip-off to the pounding of a judge's gavel.

Today, the most graphic part of his job awaits him; he has to document evidence.

"It's unbelievable," Smith mutters. "This guy has got well over 40,000 images and movies. You'd be lucky to go through 3,000 to 4,000 a day."

Canadian law demands he do this. In a 1991 ruling known as Regina vs. Stinchcombe, the Supreme Court ruled that police hand over all relevant evidence to an accused well before trial, whether damning or not. So, while prosecutors in Britain and the United States can present a representative sample to the court, Canadian police officers must inspect every image. Not all of the images will be labelled child pornography, for which there is no international textbook definition. It is largely interpreted as the depiction of sex with a minor, but in Canada it also means materials advocating it and pictures of genitals. It's illegal not only to make or sell the images, but also to possess them. And, as of last summer, it's illegal to view them on the Internet without downloading.

Smith's measuring stick is pre-pubescence. He searches for pubic hair.

"I'd say she's 4 to 5 years old. There is absolutely no development there. You'd be hard pressed as a lawyer to say that's not child pornography," he says, pointing to a close-up of a girl's genitals, opened for the camera with large fingers. "Look, her anus is bruised."

Smith has become eerily familiar with many of the pictures. More than 80 per cent of the collections are recycled, he estimates, evidence the collectors trade over the Internet with file-swapping software.

"This poor kid is in a lot of series," he says, clicking though photos of an olive-skinned girl performing oral sex on both a man and woman.

They are images few would want to look at once. But Smith says he's become inured to much of it. Once he switches off his computer at night, he deletes the images from his mind.

"That is ideal. That's what we want officers to do," says Dr. Peter Collins, an OPP forensic psychiatrist. "For some individuals, they can look at it and compartmentalize it. It doesn't affect them psychologically." The problem is, "We can't predict who those officers are."

The most vulnerable officers are those on `light duty,' temporarily transferred to the section while recovering from injuries.

Their diagnoses run the gamut: scattered concentration, memory loss, sleepless nights, anxiety, flashbacks. A few officers on Matthews' team have developed alcohol dependence. Some have fled after only two weeks. Others last two months.

Sometimes, the job can become too much for Smith, too. A single image will send him lurching from the room. Like the picture of a young Asian girl sewn to the table rope stitching through her flat chest.

"Those are the times you've just got to get out," he says. He doesn't recount what he's seen even to his wife. "People don't want to hear about it. And I don't blame them. I don't really want to offer it up."

Instead, he debriefs with his colleagues, their stress often teased out through laughter. They keep grounded by their reason for being there.

The goal is to track down the original creator of the images; the abuser. But Smith knows only a handful of cases where that has happened, all in the United States. The consolation prize is to remove the records. "Imagine some pedophile getting off on the image of your son being sexually assaulted. That's an offence every single time," he says. "That's a huge motivating factor for most people here."

Right now, Smith's caseload nudges above a dozen. Cases are scattered across the province, sending him to Timmins one day and Ottawa the next.

One thing is certain his unit already has more cases than it can handle. Matthews says three times the staff is needed to respond to the complaints that come in each week and work to track on-line traders.

Search warrants run hundreds of pages. It can take a five-person team 10 hours to collect all the evidence from a home copying computer files with a forensic computer, searching through photo albums, pulling down all VCR tapes that might reveal an illegal image, digging through gym bags. Then, Smith settles into months of documenting and criss-crossing the province for hearings.

Only two of his cases have finished the process. In both, the accused pleaded guilty. One was sent to jail for seven months for also breaching his probation as a sex offender. The other, a 15-year-old boy, was given a conditional sentence.

Which is par for the course, Smith says. John Robin Sharpe, the notorious retired Vancouver city planner who appealed his case right up to the Supreme Court of Canada, was sentenced to four months' house arrest.

"I don't think they should be getting away with anything but jail time," Smith says. From his office a few paces away, Matthews commiserates: "It's very frustrating to spend more time on an investigation than the guy ends up getting."

At day's end, when Smith logs off his computer, a final image appears. It is his wallpaper: the first and last thing he sees each day. An image of his son Jamie spans the screen, sun caressing his peach-fuzz head, a smile stretching across his face.

"It's a reminder. I love my kid. I wouldn't want this done to him," he says. "And I don't want it done to anyone else's child."
Published in Canadian daily The Toronto Star dated Mar 16, 2003.