Though her staffing has stayed the same, Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent in charge Debbie Garner has nearly triple the workload compared to five-and-a-half years ago.
When Garner first commanded the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, the average number of tips per month was 180. That has jumped to roughly 500 cyber tips per month, though it can spike as high as 800 tips.
“That is a workload that we find it very, very difficult to keep up with,” she said.
The GBI announced on Friday the arrest of 82 people across eight states in Operation Southern Impact III. There were 31 arrests in Georgia alone.
“Most of those arrests involved the possession and/or distribution of child pornography. While investigators regularly target the trading of all types of child pornography, in Operation Southern Impact III investigators targeted those seeking out and distributing the most violent sexual abuse material involving infants and toddlers. The possession, distribution and production of these horrific images is not uncommon,” according to a GBI press release.
Seven of the Georgia arrestees allegedly traveled to have sex with a minor, and another four charged with possessing child pornography were registered sex offenders.
Garner’s theories on the spike in crime tips center around technology.
The advent of cellphones has made the production easier, but internet service providers are getting better at finding it, Garner said.
The internet service providers are required by law to report any type of child exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Most of them actively look for this content on their platforms, because they don’t want it on their platforms and they want to help us in this mission. They’re getting very, very good at finding it on their platforms. It’s not people that are finding it. It’s algorithms and software that’s finding the content,” Garner said.
There are 30 staffing positions at the GBI’s Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit, and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has roughly 240 member agencies across the state.
After the internet service provider sends the suspected child exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that group then determines which of the 61 internet task forces nationwide has jurisdiction. If it is a Georgia case, the task force takes the jurisdiction question one step closer to the local level.
Both Gainesville Police and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office have task force investigators.
Adam Faulkner, who is reaching 21 years with the sheriff’s office, was dedicated specifically to these types of investigations in November. Other officers at the sheriff’s office have also been trained to work these cases.
“Before even the GBI made that statement, this sheriff’s office identified that issue and assigned me solely to these (cases),” he said.
Faulkner also has seen an increase in the volume of cases. Five years ago, he might have seen a tip once every two or three months.
Recently, it’s been up to three cases per month.
Faulker said “anything that involves children and the internet, when those two conjoin” will usually fall to him.
Though some member agencies of the Georgia task force have dedicated investigators to these types of crimes, Garner said that is not the norm.
“Many of the cases go unworked for months until we can get to them,” she said.
Leaving a case unworked concerns Garner as there is “a statistical correlation between those people who collect and view child pornography and hands-on offenses or child molestation,” she said.
To investigate these types of cases, law enforcement officers are required to take a three-day class, though there is often supplemental training offered.
In his new investigative capacity, Faulkner said he and the sheriff’s office will do everything they can to adapt to whatever platform or medium may be involved in these types of crimes.
“There’s nothing standing in my way in responding to these immediately,” he said.