NBC 10 I-Team: Elite Rhode Island State Police unit protects children online

A map displays push pins where alleged predators have been arrested. (WJAR)

In a remote building in Warwick, an elite unit is working to keep children and their families safe. The evidence room is chock full of laptops, cell phones, and tablets suspected of being used for online crimes.

"The bottom line is, any crime you can think of right now has some sort of digital component to it," said Rhode Island State Police Capt. John Alfred, head of the Joint Cyber Task Force.

This year alone, the unit has made 60 arrests and about 300 over the past three years.

The task force has roughly 16 members including troopers, local police officers, some civilians and federal agents with the FBI, Homeland Security, and Postal Inspection.

The law enforcement officers hunt online and knock on doors with search warrants. Many of the task force arrests involve exploiting or abusing our most vulnerable.

It's where Lt. Eric Yelle earns his living -- as commander of a unit within the task force called the Rhode Island Internet Crimes Against Children, or ICAC. Yelle stood in front of a state map, adorned with quite a few push pins. Each pin represents an alleged predator arrest.

"After you've done this for a while, it's tough to walk away from that, because you know you're helping kids and the affect you know it's having on their lives and the rest of their lives and their family's lives. It's a very rewarding experience," said Yelle.

The task force recently arrested an Attleboro police officer on charges he tried to entice a minor to engage in sexual activity. And the team also recently brought in two Coventry roommates for allegedly possessing child porn.

Yelle said his team is constantly on the job.

"The investigators are always digging, always pushing and always turning over the next piece of evidence," he said.

The work load can be heavy, said Yelle. Some 300 tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children come through ICAC a year.

Grant money helps the task force purchase equipment and licensing agreements. Alfred estimates about $2.7 million in grant money has been utilized over the last nine years.

Besides human investigators, the task force has a digital digger in 5-year-old Thoreau, a Labrador retriever.

"After we're done looking for items, he comes in and looks for items," said Alfred.

Thoreau's handler gave the NBC 10 I-Team a quick demonstration of his partner's skills. Within seconds, the dog picked up the scent of an SD card hidden behind the faceplate of an electrical outlet. It was about the size of a fingernail.

In a real investigation, Thoreau once found evidence in an ash filled urn.

"His nose is a lot stronger than ours," added Alfred.

While crimes against children are heavily investigated by the task force, so too are cybercrimes and how businesses can protect themselves from online hackers. State police meet regularly with employees from hospitals, defense contractors, and banks.

"The private sector owns 85 to 90 percent of the networks across the country, across the world, quite honestly, so we need their help to investigate crimes," Alfred said.

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