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Training to Catch Child Pornographers

Officer spends her days looking at images she hopes she never gets used to

San Francisco Police Department's Special Victims Unit

Inspector Ken Esposto is looking forward to retirement after 31 years on the San Francisco police force. He has spent the past seven of them working mostly by himself, staring at a computer screen in a closed room. Earlier this month he began training his replacement, Officer Andrea Weyl, an energetic 33-year-old who is willing to trade the excitement of chasing criminals on the street for Esposto’s lonely work.

“It’s a case of the grizzled veteran and the bright-eyed newcomer,” said Lt. Jason Fox, who supervises the pair. “It’s as old as police work itself.”

Esposto, 56, is tall and husky. Weyl has close-cropped red hair and a slight build. They share an office in the department’s Special Victims Unit, their computers facing away from the door so that other officers do not have to see what they are looking at hour after hour, day after day: a seemingly endless procession of digital images of children being raped and abused.

“It’s nice to have somebody around,” said Esposto, sitting at his work computer, which he confiscated from a child pornographer three years ago. “It’s nice to have a partner.”

Since 2004, Esposto has been the lone investigator in the department’s Internet crimes against children unit. His skills include a working knowledge of computer forensics, an ability to discern the ages of child victims by looking at pictures and a lot of patience.

“I may have to spend literally hours going through hundreds or thousands of images and bookmarking them,” Esposto said. “That’s what Andrea is going to have to understand.”

Weyl, who joined the department seven years ago, came from the violence reduction team in the Western Addition. She said she did not share much of what she was learning with her friends and family. “I used to go home and say: ‘I chased this guy through Sunnydale. It was awesome,’” she said. “Now I say: ‘My day was all right. How was yours?’”

Both investigators said the nature of their daily viewing was gruesome, particularly videos, and especially those with sound. In some videos, Esposto said, children look into the camera, using their eyes to express their torment. He looks for details that might reveal the locations of the crimes.

“I never get mad, never pass judgment, never have an opinion,” he said. “I just do the investigation.” He rarely talks shop with other police officers. “It makes people uncomfortable,” Esposto said. “Even here.”

Earlier this month Weyl began what eventually will be thousands of hours of training in computer forensics and child abuse investigations.

“I asked for it,” she said, “because there were too many cases for Inspector Esposto to handle, and I just wanted to make sure more cases got the attention they deserved.”

By most estimates, the global online child pornography market is worth billions of dollars a year, but no one knows how many billions, Esposto said. Nor can anyone say with certainty how big the problem is in San Francisco. At a recent training session, however, Esposto used a computer program that allowed him to find locations where child pornography was being viewed. “In a time frame of an hour, we saw at least 25 locations in the San Francisco Bay Area with people that had suspicious files,” he said.

Esposto handles about 50 Internet cases a year, splitting his time between online investigations and other child abuse cases in the city. Until recently he could only respond to tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, outside law enforcement agencies or other beats within the SFPD because the department lacked resources for proactive child pornography investigations.

“That’s why they brought me here, to learn from Ken, and they’re hoping the two of us together can start doing more proactive investigations,” Weyl said. “If you figure that he’s had that many cases part time, what’s really going on out there when we start digging?”

Digging means capturing images from computers and tracing them to physical locations and, ultimately, to perpetrators. In the best cases, the authorities are able to identify the victims in the images and locate them. Esposto said at least five of his cases last year resulted in rescued children.

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