Many people move to small towns to get away from the hustle and bustle and dangers of life in a big city. But modern dangers don’t necessarily dissolve with distance, law enforcement officers warn.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Mike Harris and his wife, investigative specialist Cassandra Harris, started Jeffco’s Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations Unit, also known as CHEEZO, in 1996. Together, they’ve arrested 945 child predators — 20 since May.
They don’t have to go far, either. They can simply pick up a phone. Online, the pair and other trained CHEEZO investigators go to messaging apps and gaming platforms and pretend to be children living in Jefferson County. Their hope is a sexual predator will find them instead of an actual child.
The interactions might start with what a child believes is a silly request: dance. That might evolve into requests to dance while wearing less clothing, perhaps mimicking stars in a music video or TV show.
“It’s easy for them to say, “It’s so cool,” because they’re in the safety of their own homes,” Mike Harris said. “Our kids are a little bit more affected by our sexual environment than we realize. In commercials, at football games … It skews their mindset.”
Often the predators disguise themselves as children. They ask youths for photos and to talk over Skype. They’ll share photos of themselves — photos of other children pulled from the internet, or say they can’t share photos of themselves at all.
Once CHEEZO investigators make contact with a presumed predator, Cassandra Harris acts as bait, playing the part of a child, often as young as 11. She agrees to meet the person, typically a man, in a public place such as a fast-food restaurant or park dressed as an adolescent or young teen. As soon as the person tries to convince her to leave with them, the other CHEEZO officers move in for the arrest. The interactions are recorded and used in court to help ensure a conviction.
Mike and Cassandra Harris extend their work to visiting local schools to share their knowledge with kids, parents and teachers. Kids are especially vulnerable at the beginning of the school year, Mike Harris said, when there is a mass information swap as students share games and apps they’ve discovered over the summer.
During every school presentation, Mike Harris stresses to kids the importance of only talking online to people they know “face-to-face” — to people they also talk to in person.
He also starts every presentation with a question. He asks students to raise their hands if someone they know has sent or received naked photos.
When he asked the question Aug. 25 at Bell Middle School, dozens of hands shot up.
“This is a whole different world than when we were growing up. There is just so much available to these kids. It’s absolutely shocking to think kids at this young age — you know some of these kids are only 12 years old — are receiving and sending pictures like that, or know someone who has,” said Linda Eggers, a para professional at Bell Middle School.
The CHEEZO unit also works one-on-one with kids who have sent or who have talked about sending nude photos. They may have come across the kids or been referred to the kids by other law enforcement officers, teachers or parents. Many of the kids are 12-14 years old, but this summer the Harrises worked with kids as young as 10.
Sheila Allison took her daughter to talk with the CHEEZO unit after she found messages on the 13-year-old’s phone that concerned her. The girl was exchanging crude messages with boys at other schools and in other countries. Allison said she is glad she stepped in before the behavior escalated.
“It was a very big wake-up call,” she said. “The technology is so scary…As a parent, you need to have eye contact with your children. You need to talk to your children. You need to get involved in what they’re doing on that phone. You are not invading their privacy. You are protecting them.”
Parents might think that enabling controls on their computers and phones will do the trick, but they can’t leave their involvement up to technology, Mike Harris said.
“For every parental control app, there’s another app kids can download to go around it,” he said. “I can’t give the parents a crystal ball, but I can give them ideas on how to keep their kids safe.”
His No. 1 suggestion: Parents need to talk with their kids and know what they’re doing and with whom. And they need to enforce boundaries — set restrictions on technology, including time limits. (Think, no phones in bedrooms at night.)
The threat of online predators isn’t going away, so the Harrises and their fellow CHEEZO officers won’t go away either.
“We are committed to keeping kids safe, as demonstrated through our work for the past 21 years,” Mike Harris said.
For more information, visit CHEEZO.org or friend “Cheezo Cool Cat” on Facebook.