Lowndes County Sheriff's Office Lt. Tony Cooper, left, talks with Heritage Headmaster Greg Carlyle after a meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Center on Tuesday. During the meeting, Cooper gave a presentation on how law enforcement investigate child exploitation. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
July 10, 2019 10:17:33 AM
A few years ago, Lt. Tony Cooper of the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office visited an area school to talk to teenagers about sex crimes and the dangers of sending inappropriate texts and pictures through social media.
He said he separated the boys from the girls and gave each group separate talks, warning them it's a felony to request or send pornographic photos from someone under the age of 18, even when they're sent consensually between teenagers.
"Three weeks later, I had three of them in my office," he said. "I said, 'Did y'all not hear what we told you?' 'Yeah, but we didn't think you were serious.' They ended up with a felony charge on them. They were exploiting an underage female that was in that same school."
The story was part of a presentation Cooper gave to the Columbus Rotary Club at its weekly meeting Tuesday at Lion Hills Center. As a member of the Mississippi Attorney General's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for 11 years, Cooper has handled plenty of similar cases, he said. Within the last year, the task force participated in Operation Broken Heart, a national operation to investigate and arrest human traffickers around the country. In Mississippi, Cooper said, it resulted in 19 arrests for various sex crimes, two of them in Lowndes County.
Nationwide, law enforcement identified 357 children being exploited by image and video. In one local case, Cooper said, the suspect had about 7,000 such images on a DropBox account.
Luckily, Cooper told The Dispatch, Lowndes County has not seen human trafficking, in which the suspect makes money off a victim's labor. Mississippi isn't even in the top 25 states where human trafficking is reported, with the majority of cases being reported in California, Texas and Florida.
Instead most of what LCSO investigates are child exploitation cases, where suspects solicit minors for sexual purposes or possess child pornography. The charges carry a 40-year prison sentence in Mississippi.
Cooper's role on the task force allows him access to special software and "cyber tips" that notify him when someone in Lowndes County is downloading child pornography. He said many social media sites have filters which throw up a "red flag" when they detect certain images, and those tips are sent to law enforcement.
Many of these cases end up in federal courts, he said, because it's so easy for the case to cross state lines over the internet. In one case, he said, someone in California was trying to entice a 16-year-old in Lowndes County to fly to California.
"We have four to five cases in federal court waiting to be prosecuted for people who have exploited children," he said.
Rotarians had multiple questions for Cooper, asking about the software the department uses and referencing the recent arrest of New York financier Jeffrey Epstein, who federal prosecutors charged with human trafficking on Monday.
Cooper said he hasn't had any cases like Epstein, where attorneys were attempting to cut deals for suspects to shield them from federal prosecution back in 2008. Instead, his office has support from the Attorney General's Office and from federal agents in Oxford.
He also referenced ways citizens can figure out whether someone is being exploited or trafficked, bringing up a flight attendant who became suspicious of a man with a young girl on a flight.
"He was dressed very nicely," he said. "Sitting right next to him was a very young girl. She looked dirty. She looked bruised. ... It didn't match up. Every time that the stewardess tried to talk to the child, the man would block her, didn't want them talking."
Eventually, Cooper said, the girl got up to go to the bathroom and was able to get the flight attendant alone and tell her she needed help. The flight attendant called authorities who took the man into custody when the flight landed. Tips like that are always welcome, he said. He would rather it be nothing than a child being hurt.
"Y'all may see something I don't see," he said.
Cooper also warned parents to watch what their children are doing online and on social media -- and especially know who they're talking to and whether they know that person in real life. Often, predators will pretend to be teenagers themselves.
Once kids send photos of themselves to someone else or post them online, he added, those pictures are out there forever.
"I tell them, 'If you hit that green button, if you hit that send button, you lose total control over what happens to that image,'" he said. "'You may send it to your boyfriend, who may not be your boyfriend the next week. He may send it to his friends who send it to his friends and it just mushrooms from there.'"
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