He sees human nature at its very worst, and it’s the best job he’s ever had.
Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael is at the frontline of stemming the tide of online child abuse as the head of the OCEANZ team (the Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand), a unit he was tasked with establishing back in October 2009.
Their aim is simple, and it’s a theme Michael and fellow OCEANZ member Detective Lisa Harrington return to again and again as we talk – they want to keep children safe.
This week it was announced that Michael and his team had arrested three Kiwis involved in an international child exploitation sting organised by the New Zealand police and America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Four Kiwi children were removed from potentially abusive situations as part of the operation, Michael said.
The offenders were charged with the distribution of images of child abuse online.
The investigation began in July of 2014 and involved input from Customs, the Department of Internal Affairs, and law enforcement agencies in the USA, Australia, Spain, Poland, Greece, France, Canada, Romania, and the United Kingdom.
It’s something the OCEANZ team do time and time again – working with organisation both in New Zealand and abroad to coordinate international investigations into online paedophile networks.
They identify child sex offenders by monitoring social network websites, target New Zealand child exploitation sites that produce images and film of child sex abuse for financial gain, gather intelligence and most importantly, they rescue victims.
To rescue these most vulnerable victims of the most appalling crimes however, means they too have to delve into the darkness.
The photographs and film of child sex abuse that’s the stock in trade of the paedophile, they have to view too.
“Some of the things we have to do, looking at videos and images, they’re very graphic and show human behaviour at it’s worst,” Michael said.
He’s clear about the payoff though.
“I tell everyone this is the best job I’ve done in the police ever. Lisa, the other members of the team have all had cases where they’ve walked out of the office door at the end of the day knowing that but for what they’ve done, a child wouldn’t have been rescued. What better feeling could you have?”
Michael and Harrington are clear too that despite the nature of the work they do, you simply have to be able to distance yourself from it. You simply couldn’t function – and continue the work – otherwise.
“I don’t want to sound callous but when we walk out that door at the end of the day, the switch goes off in your head and work’s put behind you,” Michael said.
“If you see it [child protection] as your overarching goal, it makes the job easier.”
“It’s not like you’re not affected by it, but it’s like any other investigative area, some people can work in that area and some can’t,” she said.
“I’ve had experience working in child protection areas within the police prior to coming to OCEANZ and I guess it comes back to keeping children safe. We’ve got good coping mechanisms.”
Michael explains that they staff OCEANZ with volunteers from the police, though he acknowledged that historically, “there’s always been recruitment issues with this field of work”.
He also acknowledges that it’s work that couldn’t be done without robust welfare policies to support staff, including mandatory psychological counselling, and a reliance on colleagues through informal support networks.
Michael said they structure the work in line with their child-safety focus.
“Anything that’s current and there’s a child at risk we’ll push that to the top of the list,” he said.
“We operate from a victim-centric approach and whether it’s an image of a child or a video of a child being abused or a chat log where a child’s being exploited online, our primary focus is identifying that child and rescuing them either from physical harm or ensuring that the risks are reduced for further online harm.”
Remarkably, both Michael and Harrington said that despite their work, they retain a positive view of human nature.
“I still believe human beings are good people and the vast majority are, that’s the outlook I have,” Michael said.
“There’s only a very small proportion of people that are very bad. Obviously in the work we do we see those people, but we know the vast majority of people are good.”
“I think it’s important you remember that,” Harrington said.
Given the global nature of the internet, Michael said the work they do involved tech giants such as Facebook and Google. But could they do more to combat child abuse online?
“In some cases it would be a qualified yes,” Michael said.
“We work really closely with some of those companies and some of them are very, very positive in terms of their dealings with law enforcement, they want to help.
“But what we have to understand is many of these companies are based overseas and they come under a different legal framework, so they’re constrained by their own domestic legislation as to what they can and can’t do, that’s the challenge for us, to work around those legislative constraints.”
While globalisation creates some barriers, it also creates channels for cooperation.
“We regularly receive referrals from overseas law enforcement and we regularly send them and that highlights the nature of this crime type,” Michael said.
“The is fact we can have a victim in the United States and an offender in New Zealand. Lisa has dealt with a number of cases where we’ve had New Zealand victims, really vulnerable, and the online harm done is really, really serious.”
Both Michael and Harrington agree that for a borderless crime, a borderless response is needed – and it’s happening.
“What I think we are seeing is a much more effective response by law enforcement. Look at New Zealand,” Michael said.
“The police, our unit, the DIA and Customs, we work as a taskforce and one of our colleagues said it takes a network to defeat a network.
“What you’re seeing is more effective work by law enforcement is catching more people, it’s not that there are more [offenders] there, we’re catching more because of what we’re doing.”
He’s keen to stress the multi-agency approach for two main reasons – to acknowledge the role of others in the fight, and as a warning to offenders.