VASSALBORO, Maine — The Maine State Police’s Computer Crimes Unit — tasked with investigating child sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking crimes as well as other computer-based offenses — successfully closed four cases last week. The bad news is that eight new cases also arrived last week.
And some of those pending investigations — including felony crimes “that would turn your hair white” — ended up backlogged because there are not enough forensic investigators, according to unit director Lt. Glenn Lang.
“We try to triage everything that comes in,” Lang said. “Anything that involves a person in danger, or potential danger to a person, those obviously go to the top.”
The others are dealt with as time allows.
“The vast majority of cases in our queue are child exploitation cases,” said Lang.
Computers and other electronic devices are stacked to the ceiling in several evidence rooms at the Computer Crimes Unit, which is located in the same building as the State Police Academy in Vassalboro.
Victims are left in harm’s way and perpetrators remain out on the streets because there aren’t enough detectives to investigate the backlog of cases, state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said Tuesday. He is sponsoring a bill that seeks $300,000 to pay for three Computer Crimes Unit detectives and to make the unit into a separate state police bureau.
“It’s unacceptable that we’re letting that evidence sit there and not get these guys off the street,” said the state senator, who at one time was chairman of the Legislature’s Public Safety and Appropriations committees.
The Computer Crimes Unit, which also helps with suspicious deaths, fraud, other Internet crimes and the occasional lost school laptop, includes four full-time field detectives and one technician. It also has four forensic examiners whose salaries are paid for by soon-to-expire federal and state grants. Federal stimulus money now funds two of the positions; the other two are supported through a Lewiston partnership using state funds.
“Things aren’t good now, but they are going to be an awful lot worse” when the grant funding begins to run dry next spring, Lang said.
Because of the volume and backlog of cases, “we don’t even go after the low-volume ones,” the lieutenant said. “We see felony cases go by on a daily basis that would turn your hair white.”
It would take months and months for forensic investigators to get through the evidence sitting on the shelves, Lang said.
“We’ve got 168 cases in the forensic backlog” this week, Lang said. “And there are a total of 508 items in those cases waiting for examination. Some of those items could be a pile of DVDs and that would be listed as one item.”
He added that the unit, which primarily investigates people soliciting children and those creating, downloading or sharing child pornography, “got 13 hard drives last week alone.”
Internet crimes against children are the fastest-growing offense in the United States, said Camille Cooper, director of legislative affairs for PROTECT, a national group that lobbies for legislation that protects children from physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Funding for computer crime units across the country is completely inadequate, she said.
“Every state has a backlog,” Cooper said, adding that Maine’s backlog is not unusual but represents “a real danger [when] “these possible predators are out on the streets.”
The National Association to Protect Children, in partnership with PROTECT, issued a call to action this month called “Not one more child” that asks residents to write the White House and their individual state governors to ask that emergency funding be tapped to hire more detectives.
“When governors claim emergency powers to deal with the threat of wolves, price gouging, firework hazards and grain storage logistics, there is no defensible argument for excluding the protection of children from the list of allowable reasons for declaring a state of emergency,” the website states.
The site lists a Maine example: Former Gov. John Baldacci “declared a civil emergency over the impact of high diesel prices on Maine’s forest products industry” in 2007.
Without additional funding, the number of computer crime cases that remain backlogged under investigation will only continue to grow, Lang said.
“If you pick up eight cases and you close four, it’s a losing battle,” the lieutenant said. “We’re sinking. There is no question about that.”
Diamond’s bill, which he said probably will be considered in January, is four-pronged. In addition to addressing the Computer Crime Unit’s funding needs and creating a separate bureau, it also would add offense level tiers and a list of definitions to the Maine Sex Offender Registry and align state sentencing guidelines for child abuse, pornography and exploitation to more strict federal guidelines.
“Tell me one thing that is more important than saving a kid who is being sexually assaulted,” Diamond said. “That is the ultimate priority as far as I’m concerned.”