Police in Champaign and Mattoon say money from a federal grant will help them identify and prosecute child predators, fight child sexual exploitation over the Internet and enforce sex offender registration laws.
Champaign and Mattoon police are two of eight Illinois police agencies sharing a grant of nearly a half-million dollars from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The grant will be shared equally by the eight agencies, with each getting about $62,000.
Lt. Joe Gallo of the Champaign Police Department's Investigations Division said the department decided to pursue the grant to help step up investigation of sexual predators.
"It was an opportunity for us to expand our investigation capabilities in the online area to target child predators," Gallo said.
Gallo said Champaign will use its money to pay for training, computer software and computer equipment.
"One of our goals is to train our detectives to do computer forensics in-house here in Champaign," Gallo said. "Right now, when we obtain a computer to investigate, we have to ship it to a lab in Springfield, and it can be six to 12 months before we get the computer back. That really delays the investigating process."
Gallo said Champaign police have two detectives who specialize in catching child predators.
"This isn't their primary responsibility, but it is part of their caseload," Gallo said.
Gallo said grant money will pay to send detectives to a workshop in Appleton, Wis., to learn about Internet crimes against children and investigative techniques.
Gallo said he doesn't have any statistics on the number of child predators in Champaign because so much of the technology used to identify and catch them is new.
"There could be a number of people in Champaign trading in child pornography and we might not have identified them. As technology advances, I'm convinced we will see an increase in computer crimes across the board," Gallo said. "We hope to expand our investigative capabilities to identify those child sex offenders and child predators who haven't received the attention from law enforcement they deserve."
Mattoon Police Chief David Griffith said his department has one officer who specializes in investigating Internet crimes against children.
Griffith said his department's specialist spends about half the week investigating child sexual predators.
Mattoon will use its share of the grant money for training and to buy software and computers to assist with finding, tracking and catching child sexual predators.
"The U.S. Department of Justice sets up training programs around the country that teach the latest methods of tracking online predators, how to look for computer users going to child porn sites," Griffith said. "It's a specialized field. We have sent our officer to similar programs in Ohio, Colorado and Texas.
"The whole idea is to learn how to track online predators, how to look for computer users going to child porn sites and people who transfer child porn back and forth," he said.
He said the department would also like to have an in-house computer forensics lab.
Griffith said his department has to send computers seized as evidence to Chicago for analysis and wait six to nine months to get results back.
Griffith said he doesn't know if there is an increase in child sex predators. He said the number of registered sex offenders in Mattoon generally ranges between 47 and 57 a month.
"That's a pretty healthy number for a community of 18,000 people," Griffith said. "I don't know if it is a growing problem any more than it was in the past. I've been here for 30 years, but we didn't used to hear about the problem."