In the course of more than 14 years on the job, Detective Lt. John McLean has been exposed to countless sexually abusive images of children — some of them quite graphic, all of them disturbing — but he still remembers the first time he saw a picture of a young child performing a sexual act circulating on the Internet.
McLean, a police detective from Medford, Mass., who specializes in computer crime investigations, has been cracking down on cyber child pornography since the early days of the Internet.
Along the way, he has seen the technology improve, get cheaper and ultimately more accessible. He has also, unfortunately, seen the content on child porn sites proliferate and get increasingly more disturbing.
But his first exposure to an image exploiting a pre-pubescent child has stuck with him through the years. And though he's not the kind of guy who likes to dwell on these things, he admits it's not pleasant.
"Obviously the exploitation of infants bothers me," he says. "The first time I saw an infant on a child porn site — the child was between 5 to 6 years old — that was very disturbing because I hadn't seen anything like it before. The toddler range, between zero to one, one-and-a-half, is by far the most disturbing. I've even seen a shot of a little baby giving fellatio."
In a world where sexually abusive images of children are available at the click of a mouse, McLean and his comrades in cyber crime units across the country have an uphill — some would say, impossible — mission to accomplish.
But even as law enforcement officials battle to cope with the rising tide of Internet sex crimes against children — from sexually explicit images of minors posted on the Web, to online enticement of kids for sexual acts — for the men and women on the front lines of the fight, cyber-sleuthing can be a disturbing business.
And not surprisingly, a number of special agents, detectives, police officials, and investigators on the job are seeking counseling.
‘Assault on Your Sense of Decency’
"It's an assault on your sense of decency, on your sense of humanity," says Guy Seymour, a psychologist who works with a number of police departments across the country. "Initially, it can be horrendous. It's very distressing. The hardest is the first year [on the job] when it's all new and you have to get your mind to adjust, to realize that this is what happens in life."
By the very nature of the job, law enforcement, like other professions dealing with the darker side of human life, can be often be emotionally traumatic. Even the most experienced criminal investigators can find cyber child porn busting depressing.
"You see images that normal people wouldn't be able to comprehend," says Arnold Bell, unit chief of the FBI's Innocent Images National Initiative. "I've seen people shot, stabbed, dead, and though it's sad, I can detach myself. I've developed mechanisms to cope over the years. But these images stay with me. I carry it with me two, three days later. That's what makes this job stressful.
While much of the job involves sitting sedately behind blinking computer screens far from the screeching sirens and urban violence, cracking down on cyber porn involving children has a unique set of challenges.
For agents on the beat, there are hours spent poring over hard-core child porn sites, which are getting increasingly sophisticated with a growth in high-quality Web video.