“That’s honestly a massive amount,” she said. In about a third of the cases, agents find that the suspect has a weapon, she said, “a sobering reminder that it could have been used.”
When she started working with the unit seven years ago, it received about 180 “cybertips” a month about possible online child predators. The agents thought they were swamped. Now, they get about 1,000 tips a month, while funding for the unit has remained relatively flat.
“My agents will say that the worst thing is they have information that may help a child, and they know they may never get to it,” she said. “It’s the overwhelming caseload that is the worst thing to them, and that they feel as though they will never reach all the children that need help.”
Carly Yoost, the founder and chief executive of the Child Rescue Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Boca Raton, Fla., said that Florida had been proactive about investigating online child abuse, as made clear by the recent arrests. The police said the pastor arrested in Central Florida was found with abusive imagery on his computer; officers located him using the Child Rescue Coalition’s technology, which monitors file-sharing services and some chat apps and areas of the internet that are not accessible using a web browser.
Ms. Yoost said Florida did not stand out, however, in the number of reports the Child Rescue Coalition’s technology locates. Data provided to The New York Times by the organization shows case numbers largely correlating with the population in most states.
Experts said it was uncommon to see suspects attack law enforcement during child sexual exploitation arrests; police officers are usually more worried about the suspects killing themselves or destroying evidence. Still, investigators said they often found weapons on the property, meaning the threat of violence was always present.
“Every time my team approaches the house, I hold my breath, because you just don’t know,” said Sgt. Jeff Swanson, the commander of an internet crimes against children task force in Kansas.