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Polk County pursues child-porn arrests because of Sheriff's Judd commitment

BARTOW — When a single Florida county arrested 45 men and boys from all walks of life in June on charges of downloading child pornography, some people worried the place had become a haven for deviants.

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But top law enforcement officials and child welfare experts say the only thing unusual about Polk County is that its sheriff, Grady Judd, happens to pursue child-porn enthusiasts with more fervor and resources than most.

Child porn has grown so pervasive on the Internet, they say, that police agencies all over the country, using the latest file-tracking technology, could easily spend every day finding and arresting offenders.

"Today, it's truly like shooting fish in a barrel," said Judd, who has directed four child pornography roundups since 2006, resulting in at least 176 arrests in Polk County, a patchwork of orange groves, phosphate mines, modest towns and a half-million people between Tampa and Orlando. The biggest city is Lakeland, population 90,000.

Mike Phillips, chief of the computer crimes section at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Polk's sheer number of child pornography arrests in recent years is almost unheard of nationally for a single agency.

Judd, whose Sheriff's Office houses the Internet crimes against children task force for central Florida, has made sure his detectives have gotten the specialized training needed to identify and catch people who download the illegal material from the Internet.

The media-friendly Judd, who when he needs guidance is as likely to reach for the Bible on his desk as he is to go flipping through the Florida criminal code, said his crusade against child porn comes from his fervent commitment to protect children. An "old vice guy," he was arresting child pornographers when they were still trading in magazines and paper photographs.

"We are absolutely committed and send a clear message that if you engage in child pornography, if you're trying to lure children online, we are going to seek you out, chase you to the ends of the earth and put you in jail," the 55-year-old sheriff said.

Child pornography has exploded as Internet use has become commonplace. Experts say the images increasingly seem to feature younger children — infants and toddlers — being molested for the cameras in more violent and egregious ways. Most are abused and photographed by a parent, relative or someone else in a position of trust.

In this era of lean budgets, many law enforcement agencies don't have the time, resources or inclination to aggressively pursue such crimes, experts say.

"Once you get the training and the resources, it's very easy to pick these guys off, but law enforcement already has such problematic crimes competing for police resources," said Keith Durkin, an Ohio Northern University sociology professor and frequent witness for the federal Internet crimes against children task force.

Harold Copus, a former FBI agent who has extensively investigated child pornography cases, took a harder line on law enforcement efforts.

"It is spotty and totally inconsistent," Copus said. "And it comes down to commitment and, quite frankly, laziness. There's no pressure" from the public.

Phillips, the Florida computer crimes chief, said that because of limited resources, the June roundup was aimed at some of the worst offenders — those trading the most images or suspected of abusing children. The 45 people arrested had amassed up to 15,000 images.

Polk County pursues child-porn arrests because of Sheriff's Judd commitment 10/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 11:36pm]

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