MERIDEN — President Donald Trump Friday signed into law a bill that reauthorizes funding and support to law enforcement to investigate internet crimes against minors, ensuring funding will continue through 2022.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who introduced the bill, said the funding is necessary to ensure police officers are able to keep up with the evolving ways technology is used to both target minors for sexual relationships and to trade child pornography.
“This kind of work is demanding and difficult, but nothing is more important than protecting our children,” Blumenthal said during a press conference at the state forensic lab.
Blumenthal announced at the 12:30 p.m. press conference that Trump had signed the bill, which was cosponsored by John Cornyn, R-Texas, earlier in the day.
The PROTECT Our Children Act reauthorizes the original act, which became law in 2008, continuing the National Internet Crimes Against Children Data System and the National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction 2022.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the act will cost an additional $113 million between 2018 and 2022, and another $119 million after that.
Blumenthal said the authorization is needed because of a rapid increase in sex-related internet crimes against minors.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 8.2 million calls to its tips hotline last year, up from just 1.1 million in 2014. The NCMEC assisted law enforcement and families with more than 20,500 cases of missing children.
State and local police said the training is critical to being able to combat internet crimes.
Sgt. Richard Alexandre, who heads the state police task force on internet crimes, said perpetrators are “not someone who lives next door, necessarily — the perpetrator might live across the country, in another country.”
He also warned that cellphones are playing an increasingly large role in such crimes, particularly those involving adults trying to have sexual relationships with minors. Alexandre said new applications make it easier to hide cell phone activity, including keeping calls from appearing on bills, and parents need to be more vigilant.
Officers from municipal departments said they rely on the training to specialize in catching predators. Glastonbury Sgt. Corey Davis said an officer in his department “wasted no time,” posing as a 13-year-old on line to catch a suspect almost immediately after returning from training.
“With local police resources spread so thin across the myriad of duties the American police officers have today, it’s comforting to know the...task force exists and continues to support our local agencies,” Davis said.
Blumenthal said he next wants to push for changes in federal law that would remove protections for social media companies when their platforms are used for the obvious purpose of engaging in illegal sexual activity.
Blumenthal was particularly critical of the website Backpage, which has been known as a forum for sex traffickers to advertise. “This is sort of the black hole of the internet,” he said.
Law enforcement officials said some social media platforms have tried to do a better job monitoring content and working with authorities when they spot obvious offenses.
State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo said various social media platforms are used to trade child pornography, both for communications and actual transfers, but some companies have notified police when they spot confirmed illegal images.
“We are starting to see the pathology to a safe home evolve, in the sense that social media companies are starting to become more responsible,” he said.