In Santa Ana, California, Police Investigative Specialist Kerry Torres spends hours each day on the computer, scouring the darkest corners of the internet for traces of child pornography.
Then she goes home to her family. But every photo or video she has seen tells a story of abuse and exploitation; and they haunt her long after she clocks out.
“To come home and to be a mom, and not bring it home and not let it affect me, that’s always a challenge,” Torres told The Epoch Times. “Because sometimes I don’t want to turn off my computer, sometimes I don’t want it to be end of day—because there’s one thing more I could be doing.”
Shy and reserved, Orange County native Torres didn’t always picture herself becoming the Santa Ana Police Department’s prime investigator for cracking online child exploitation cases, but she knew she wanted to use her computer skills to solve crimes.
Partners in Crime
Since the inception of the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) online task force last year, Torres has closed roughly 180 cases of child exploitation.
“There’s probably nothing worse than what investigators have to watch and what we look at,” Torres said. “The whole job is a challenge—to be able to do what I do, and give my 100 percent focus to my victims that are out there and that need help.”
The investigator noted a sharp uptick in cyber tips after the stay-at-home orders began in March 2020. “We started in March around 400,000, and hit over 1 million cyber tips as a task force by April,” she said. These tips came from all over Southern California.
Torres doesn’t work alone; she has her commander alongside her. The department also partners with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC), a network of 61 agencies (federal, state, and local) and more than 4,500 officials investigating online crimes against children.
When it’s time to talk to a suspect, Torres and her partner head to the interrogation along with officials from an ICAC agency—with Torres at the helm during the questioning.
Most tips are assigned to her from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a central data reporting service for exploited children all over the country.
In 2019, NCMEC’s cyber tip hotline received 16.9 million reports relating to child sexual abuse material, online enticement, and child molestation. When NCMEC assigns a tip to its Southern California branch, officials comb through information and assign the investigation to the closest local agency.
Torres said she was assigned 56 tips in December alone. “We just have a very large amount, unfortunately, of cyber tips that come through,” she said. “It’s almost daily, sometimes a couple a day.”
A Day in the Life
Every morning, Torres—who describes herself as a “big list-person”—creates a list of daily priorities, which include sorting documents, writing reports, and reviewing evidence.
Emotionally, the job is draining, she said, adding that she struggled when the initiative launched last year. “I literally told myself, ‘Either you can do this, or you can’t,’” she said.
Ultimately, she decided to make the commitment. “I really want to stop these people … so if this is the part that I get to play in helping literally the world’s most vulnerable population, then I’m in.”
Prior to working for the SAPD, Torres was employed as a social media dispatcher for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. The position allowed her to remain tech savvy, familiarizing her with social media and any new platforms that popped up.
Knowing the inner workings of websites and taking general computer knowledge to the next level are essential job skills, she said.
“I really try and stay up on what the new technology is and all the new apps that are coming out,” she said. In her line of work, “understanding the difference between how Instagram works and relates information, and the difference between … Facebook and Reddit” are vital, she said.
Torres’s position in the SAPD is unique because she’s not a sworn officer—she’s a civilian. “Just because you can’t be a sworn law enforcement officer, there are civilian options out there, and you can do this too,” she said. There are limitations, she noted, but they don’t get in the way of the job.
“I get the case from the start, I work it all the way, [and] when it comes down to interviewing my guy, I get to do the interview,” she said. “I’m doing everything the whole way through, so there’s never really a portion of the case that I miss out on.”
A Working Parent
The job has made Torres aware of helpful tools to monitor her kids’ online activity.
“I think that parents really need to understand social media and what’s out there,” she said. “I have children, and I’m fairly tough on my kids, and I know that. But I mean, this is what I see every single day.”
Torres doesn’t allow cell phones in the bathroom and sets screen time limits for her children, who range from elementary school-age to teenagers.
“My kids are closely monitored. We have conversations about the stranger danger,” she said. “If [parents] would have the conversations, if they would just keep the extra eye; it’s OK to monitor what the kids are doing online.
“Because when they’re not being monitored is when these people are taking advantage of the children.”
Parents should know what apps their children are using and who they’re talking to online, keep their devices in public areas of the house, and always make sure they know they need to tell an adult if anyone online makes them feel scared or uncomfortable.
She said one of the scariest parts of the job is finding out that suspects are “definitely people that you see everyday.”
“I don’t think that you could ever look at people and just pick them out. There’s no type,” she said.
Listening to music eases the toll the job takes on her, she said; her current go-to artists are Billie Eilish and Halsey. But catching the culprits makes it all worthwhile.
“I absolutely love what I do. And I love getting to arrest the people that are wronging these kids. There’s just nothing better,” Torres said.