When COVID-19 arrived in Canada, life slowed down for people who started working from home and cutting back on social activities. But, for investigators in ALERT’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit, things only got more hectic.
In March 2020 alone, the ICE Unit took in 243 online child exploitation files — more than double the unit’s monthly average of 110 over the previous two years. That upward trend continued in April and May as Albertans were encouraged to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Nobody anticipated what the byproducts of a worldwide pandemic would look like. In terms of child exploitation, that was something I think snuck up on people,” said Staff Sgt. Dominic Mayhew, who heads up the ICE team based in Calgary. “When you look at it retrospectively, you can see how the pandemic added to risk factors that accounted for a spike, but I can’t say we were anticipating a wave.”
Mayhew adds that, prior to March, a busy month might have entailed executing six search warrants. In May 2020, they executed 12.
Staff Sgt. Mike Zaparyniuk, the officer in charge of the Edmonton-based ICE team, says that the number of files his team took in between January and May 2020 was up 63% compared to the same period in 2019. That puts a strain on investigators as they try to figure out which files are the most serious and need immediate action.
“Everything that comes in here is red hot; everything is something that we can action,” he said. “But when you get this mass influx at once, they’re already working a ton of files, but now you have to figure how to take those files and spread them out throughout the office.”
When files come in, they are analyzed and suspects are checked against law enforcement databases before they go to the staff sergeant to be assigned out. Along with the analysis and deconfliction results, pushing a file forward depends on factors like the quantity of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) found, the severity of the material, or the immediate danger a child might face.
More work for investigators also means more work for the ICE Unit’s forensic technicians, who sift through the devices seized from suspects to prepare evidence for Crown prosecutors.
“When investigators do more search warrants, they bring back a ton more devices for the techs to work on,” Zaparyniuk said. “And nowadays, people can store and access things anywhere — hard drives, thumb drives, gaming consoles, anything you can think of.”
Even on a good day — let alone in the middle of a pandemic — ICE investigators and technicians deal with heinous crimes. The staff sergeants strive to give members the support they need by maintaining open-door policies and checking in frequently.
“All our employees have access to psychological services. And we know that building a personal wellness plan is very individualistic. How to create that resiliency is something we try to get each of our members to think about in advance,” Mayhew said.
“Many of us in the unit are parents, and we’re exposed daily to CSAM, which is never easy,” Zaparyniuk added. “There’s mandatory psychological testing for each of the members, and they seek their own outlets, such as hobbies or physical fitness, to take their minds off what they see.”
As Alberta recovers from COVID-19, Zaparyniuk feels ICE intakes will go down, but they may never return to pre-March 2020 levels. “Now that people are starting to get back to routines, it’s not going to change their behaviour if they want to look at CSAM,” he said. “They just won’t have as much time.”