SPOKANE COUNTY, Wash. -- It is a part of law enforcement no one ever wants to get to know. It is the sex crimes unit.
They are the handful of detectives responsible for investigating some of the most heinous crimes, especially those against children.
The unit only has seven members but has dozens of active cases. KREM 2 looked into whether the understaffed department could be putting families at risk by simply not having enough good guys to bust local deviants.
Detectives in the sex crimes unit are not only responsible for tracking thousands of sex offenders in Spokane County, but also investigating crimes against children.
They openly admitted they are short-staffed, so they have taken a different kind of approach to get the job done. They are turning to the internet.
Deputy Damon Simmons has a job unlike most others. Half of his time is devoted to checking up on sex offenders who have already committed a crime. The other half is spent online pursuing the darkest parts of the internet, searching for child sex predators.
“My sergeant and I were sitting in a room several times and we saw live sex shows with kids, “said Simmons. “[But] we don’t know where.”
It is a horrific job, but it is part of the proactive approach the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has taken when it comes to sex crimes. Four detectives are tasked with preventing abuse before another child becomes a victim.
Offenders are called targets; trading and sharing child pornography in Spokane. The targets often share child pornography without even bothering to cover their tracks.
“There’s this false sense of anonymity. No one knows what I’m doing. I’m home by myself. I’m on my own computer,” said Simmons.
From anonymous chat rooms to file-sharing websites, Simmons goes through it all. He painstakingly builds a case, knowing children he sees on screen are already victims.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich knows it is a huge undertaking. His small staff not only tries to prevent future crimes, but also investigates those that have already happened. Sometimes, it means days or even weeks may pass before someone is able to officially interview child victims.
One Spokane Valley parent, who did not want to be pictured, told KREM 2 News ten days passed before his two girls were interviewed after a family friend molested them both.
“You can either have these things done correctly. Or you can have it done sloppy. And we don't do sloppy work in the Sheriff's Office,” said Knezovich in regards to the delay in questioning the girls. He said improper work could lead to the case being dropped.
Knezovich maintains hiring additional deputies is what the department needs. However, even ten more deputies would not help. Since patrol shifts are understaffed by ten, the positions would go toward that portion of the department. It means sex crime victims still wouldn’t see an officer or be interviewed any sooner.
At any given time on the internet, there are 5 million child sex predators trolling for their next victim, according to Simmons. As of now, only roughly 2,000 federal task force members are trying to stand in the way. “It can be overwhelming. But we tackle it the best we can, and hope to make a dent,” said Simmons.
In Washington, it is illegal to make, share, or watch pornography involving kids. The Spokane County Sex Crimes Detectives have already gotten more than 30 convictions in the last few years. The detectives are also monitoring about three dozen more offenders.