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Proactive Online Stings Do Little to Protect Children

by Eike Blohm, MD

Many Americans landed themselvesin prison for enticement of a minor as a result of a police sting operation. The practice continues although it has never been shown to actually prevent crimes against children.

The advent of the internet in the early 1990s led to an explosion of the distribution of child sexual abuse material (“CSAM”). In response, the U.S. Department of Justice created a task force initiative called the Internet Crimes Against Children (“ICAC”) program that provides grants to local police agencies to combat the online sexual exploitation of minors. The program remained small and received no federal funding until 2003.

This changed with the horrific kidnapping, sexual assault, and torture of Alicia Kozakiewicz, a 13-year-old girl who had chatted with a 38-year-old man online pretending to be a teenage boy. Her abuse was live-streamed on the internet. In response, Congress passed the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008. The law quadrupled funding for the ICAC program to $75 million per year.

There are now 61 ICAC task forces nationwide that compete for funding. Money is allocated based on the number of arrests and convictions each task force secures. By far, the easiest and most cost-effective way to generate arrests is proactive online stings where an officer pretends to be a minor and attempts to entice an adult. The average “investment” to generate an arrest is a mere $2,500.

Norman Achin, a then 50-year-old public school teacher, became part of that statistic when in 2018 he created a profile on the adult-only dating app Grindr. He was contacted by the user AlexVA, who during their conversation stated he was a 14-year-old boy. Achin replied through the app that he was looking for adult fun and was not interested in a relationship with a boy. He reported AlexVA to Grindr for violating its terms of use, and the company suspended the offending account.

Two weeks later, Achin was communicating with other adult Grindr users and exchanged nude selfies. Likely by accident, he sent a picture to the suspended account of AlexVA. The actual user of the AlexVA account was a Fairfax County, Virginia, police officer. Achin was arrested the following day, and a year later, he was convicted of using a communications device to solicit a minor. Achin served “only” seven months in prison, but the real fallout was the loss of his job and pension and the thousands of dollars in legal fees, in addition to now being a registered sex offender.

It is highly unlikely that a person such as Mr. Achin would ever actually have threatened the well-being of a child. This raises the question whether the widespread practice of proactive stings does anything to reduce victimization of minors or solely serves as a source of funding for police departments.

The ICAC operations manual on operational and investigative standards notes that the target of the investigation should be allowed to set the tone, pace, and subject matter of the conversation. This is to prevent entrapment by law enforcement. Yet, this guideline is not always followed. In fact, task force lieutenant Michael Eggleston stated during a 2016 television interview that “[Police] are not enticing people to do something they don’t already have on their mind. We’re just taking advantage of this weakness.”

This approach is reflected in the transcript between “Crystal,” a police officer posing as a 12-year-old girl, and an adult man. After she disclosed that the stated age on her dating profile of 32 was fictitious, the man would not agree to anything more than “being friends” and would only agree to meet in a public location. Yet “Crystal” was unrelenting. Even after the man tried to disengage, she bombarded him with several more messages until he finally agreed to meet her for sex. At that point, he was arrested.

The ends simply don’t justify the means. A Manitoba Law Journal study in 2020 examined proactive stings by Canadian Police. Rarely did any of the persons arrested engage in any other criminal activity such as possession of underage pornography. The argument that proactive stings protect children by arresting so-called “future predators” does not hold water.

Recently, lawmakers agreed to fund a study that compares the criminal histories of individuals arrested in proactive sting operations with those of persons arrested as a result of a reactive sting operation in which an adult actually sought out a child. The results of the research are expected in June of 2023 and will provide insight into whether proactive stings merely misallocate resources and unnecessarily lead to incarceration.

Source: The Appeal



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