Staff Sgt. Shawn Stubbs calls them some of the most horrendous crimes his team handles.
Stubbs, provincial commander of the Saskatchewan Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit, said his 14 investigators are “taxed to the max.”
In 2021, ICE handled a record 853 investigations— the fourth straight year in which complaints to the unit increased.
Police laid 97 charges against 37 people — mostly men — during the year. The majority of those charges — 57 — were for possession of child pornography or transmitting, making available or distributing child pornography.
Investigators also laid 11 luring charges.
“Usually with those, (it) is someone that lies about their age, they lie about who they are, get comfortable with the child talking to them,” Stubbs said.
“Then they try and either get pictures from them or try and meet them and lure them that way, into either giving them a product or actually meeting with them, which is the worst-case scenario.”
He said the rise in complaints can’t be attributed to one thing.
He said it comes down, in part, to investigators simply searching for people online and monitoring social media.
“Sometimes, someone will put something on TikTok or Snapchat and think, ‘Oh, it’s funny,’ but no, it’s actually self-exploitation,” he said.
“It is horrendous and someone else can use that information and use it for the nefarious side of what we deal with.”
He also attributed the increase to tips from the public as a result of better public awareness of the problem.
An investigation can last weeks or months, Stubbs said, but it can move rapidly if it involves luring.
“We wrap everything up in a matter of days, sometimes hours if we can get to it fast enough.”
While investigators treat each case with care and compassion, he said, they also have to deal with horrific images.
All officers in the unit are required to see mental health professionals throughout the year.
“If there is anything noticed by the doctors, we’ll deal with it right away,” he said. “It’s open communication with everyone because the stuff we deal with is disgusting.”
There are steps parents and caregivers can take to protect their children online.
Stubbs said knowledge and communication of the issue is key, and that kids need to know exactly who they are interacting with online, be it on an app, on social media or when gaming.
And cutting children off from electronics is not the answer.
“They have to know how to work all these apps and computers. It’s the age we live in,” he said.
“So it’s just getting used to it and talking with your kids, and the more you talk about it with your children, the more they will be comfortable relaying information to you.”
He also had a word of caution: Posting innocent content online can turn bad, fast.
“Once you put it on the web, it’s never gone,” he explained, even on apps like Snapchat where pictures and messages are usually only visible for a short time before becoming inaccessible to recipients.
“Someone always has a copy of it somewhere … it’s there forever, unfortunately.”