For the past four years, Missoula Police Detective Chris Shermer has tracked down internet predators who prey on children. Now that a federal grant that paid for him to police cyberspace full-time is slated to run dry in September, he's worried that local kids will become increasingly vulnerable. "We're going to be hammered," he says.
The Missoula Police Department received a $500,000 federal grant in 2009 to fund local Internet Crimes Against Children enforcement efforts. Since then, Shermer has often adopted the persona of a teenage girl to cruise chat rooms. All too frequently he says he encounters adults online who seek to sexually victimize children. Shermer estimates that during the past four years he's helped secure 20 convictions. That number includes individuals found guilty of trading in child pornography.
With the one-time grant drained, Shermer says he will return to the more general detective work he did prior to 2009. He'll continue to police the internet—maybe 25 percent of his allotted time, he says—but he doesn't believe it'll be enough. "I don't have time to do a sting," he says.
The Missoula Sheriff's Department employs a part-time ICAC detective, and the federal government continues to fund similar efforts in communities such as Billings, Butte and the Flathead. In Missoula, Assistant MPD Chief Mike Brady says that in addition to Shermer's continued part-time efforts, the department is looking at "incorporating those duties into the division."
Brady acknowledges, however, that certain outreach efforts, such as Shermer speaking in area schools, could end.
"We may not be able to do as much of the proactive work that we're doing," Brady says. "But that kind of remains to be seen."
Shermer says that spreading his work around to other law enforcement officers won't be easy because ICAC policing is specialized. For example, before he was hired onto the task force, the federal government had Shermer fill out an 800-question personality test to evaluate his psychological stability. "Nobody else has the training that I have," he says.
Overall, Shermer is disappointed that MPD didn't have a public conversation before the funding ran out about how losing the full-time ICAC position could impact locals. "The community needs to know," he says.