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Meet the two-man cybercrime unit tracking the people who exploit and abuse children

Chris Dunnill's job comes with serious risk of psychological wear and tear. That’s why the detective-constable with the Thunder Bay Police Service is required to undergo annual psychological assessments.
Det.-Const. Chris Dunnill of the Thunder Bay Police Service's cybercrime unit shows the Child Protection System mapping program. The program displays all the computers in an area of computers offering child pornography files for download. (Jodi Lundmark,

Chris Dunnill's job comes with serious risk of psychological wear and tear.

That’s why the detective-constable with the Thunder Bay Police Service is required to undergo annual psychological assessments. It’s a requirement not expected of most city police officers, but most city police officers aren’t sifting through the kind of evidence that Det.-Const. Dunnill is.

"It is disturbing," he says, describing the millions of files that can be found on a single computer seized in a child pornography investigation.

"When we talk about the child pornography being collected, it's a full range of ages. I'd like to be able to tell you it's teenagers, but that wouldn't be the truth. It's newborns, infants, toddlers."

Dunnill is one of two computer forensic examiners that make up the Thunder Bay Police Service's cybercrime unit.

With the prevalence of electronic devices today, the pair have a hand in almost every investigation the force is involved with. But their principal mandate is still to investigate child exploitation on the Internet.

Two years ago police were introduced to the Child Protection System mapping program, which shows the rough location of computers that make child pornography available for download.

The map of Thunder Bay shows about four or five graphical pushpins across the city indicating an area where there has been online child pornography activity since October 2013.

A single pin does not represent a single incident, rather it represent a larger cluster of cases.

When Dunnill clicks on one of those pins on the city’s northside, a firework-like graphical display of suspected computers, or other electronic devices, pops up and spreads across the digital map. There is a similar graphic for a pin on the city’s southside.

"These (graphical) representations are child pornography files, whether they are pictures or movies, sitting in a shared folder allowing others from around the globe to download them," Dunnill says.

When Dunnill and his partner first saw the map, they knew they needed to take action and put a larger focus on investigating child pornography in the city.

In April 2012 (see video below), the Thunder Bay Police held a news conference announcing the arrests of four individuals for possession of child pornography. During that announcement, police promised more arrests were coming.

Story continues after video ...

The promise was fulfilled in 2013, when about half a dozen more cases were reported to the media of individuals charged with possession of child pornography.

In some of those cases thousands of files were found on computers.

In one November 2013 case, an arrest resulted in police seizing 15 computers, six hard drives and about 10,000 DVDs from a southside home.

In every case, the officers of the cybercrime unit are required to examine every single file and determine if it is child pornography as defined by the Criminal Code of Canada.

"These aren't nude pictures of children in the bathtub. That isn’t even considered child pornography," says Dunnill. "We're talking about the sexual abuse and assault of children. What prompts people to generate this type of media, I don't understand, but it is there."

The door of the cybercrime unit's office is always closed. Behind that door the two officers look through millions of files of child pornography on multiple, large computer screens.

It's something that takes a toll on Dunnill.

Dunnill believes there is a large number of potential perpetrators in Thunder Bay, but understands that even as a member of a local police force he’s dealing with a worldwide problem.

"Every city, every country has the same problem," he says.

Dunnill can’t discuss how they track down people suspected of possessing, distributing or accessing child pornography. He knows the suspects his unit is trying to track are getting better at it. 

"The response around the world is going to slow this down, but at the same time, it's a bit of a cat and mouse game. As our skills become better and we start catching more, the people that collect this type of material, they go to different places, find different ways of eluding us," he says.

Offenders have also started doing live shows online to evade law enforcement. The live streaming is difficult for police to detect unless they’re tipped off about a time and web address.

"For a very short period of time, they will broadcast the sexual abuse of a child," Dunnill says, adding people can watch or record the event.

With so many files to examine, Dunnill admits the two-person cybercrime unit could easily use more people. .

Thunder Bay Police Service Chief J.P. Levesque says if resources were no issue, they could easily double the unit.

"That's not in the cards right now," he says, adding that officers from other units can't easily be transferred either.

"You can't just take somebody and say 'oh, by the way, today you're a computer crime expert.' It takes some time, some training."

There are potential solutions on the horizon. With the increasing use of electronic devices, Levesque says the force is looking to partner with other agencies to tackle cybercrime.

"The prevalence of the Internet now has just exploded really,” the chief says. “There's some speculation that by 2016 all crime being committed will involve something to do with computers or tablets or smartphones.

"It's an area we really have to be in touch with and make sure we stay on top of it as a police organization."

In Thunder Bay, most child pornography charges are possession or distribution. Levesque says his concern is that those offences can lead to the individual committing more serious acts, like sexual assault.

"It's disputed whether or not you can cure a pedophile or change them. If we can prevent more serious types of things through these investigations, that's our goal as well."

In the shortterm, the city’s police force will continue to operate with its two-man cybercrime unit. The officers will continue to play the twisted cat-and-mouse game behind that closed door within the police station. They will continue to try and find the people behind the graphical pushpins that the average citizen cannot see.

And, at least once a year, the two officers will check on their potential mental wear-and-tear through the mandated psychological exam.

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