06/06/07 — Attorney general takes aim at child predators

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Attorney general takes aim at child predators

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 6, 2007 1:46 PM

State Attorney General Roy Cooper wants to make sure North Carolina's children are safe. It is, he told the Goldsboro Rotary Club Tuesday, one of the most important parts of his job.

Since taking office in 2001, the former state Senate Democratic majority leader has focused much of his efforts on eliminating the threat posed by child predators, both on the streets and online.

"I come at this problem not just as the top law enforcement officer in the state, but as a father," he said.

The father of three girls, Cooper explained that he knows and understands both the lures and the pitfalls of the Internet.

And, he said, it's a problem that's continuing to grow.

"Our children are at risk," he said.

But, he added, they are working to reduce and eliminate that risk.

Under his watch, the State Bureau of Investigation has created a new computer forensics squad, capable of fighting predators in their own technological medium. Efforts also are currently underway to work with social networking sites like Xanga, Facebook and MySpace -- the most popular -- to protect children.

For Cooper and other state attorney generals, the main focus of those efforts has been MySpace, which recently found about 7,000 sexual predators using its services nationwide -- 245 registered in North Carolina.

"We think that number is actually probably a little higher because those are just the people who used their real names," Cooper said. "We're sure there are others out there using aliases, or who have not registered or who have not been convicted.

"The problem is, places like MySpace have become playgrounds for child predators."

That's why, he continued, he hopes the legislature will adopt a bill requiring parental permission for children under the age of 16 to post a page on MySpace -- if the Web site's operators don't take such a step on their own.

"We'd rather them voluntarily do it," Cooper said. "They have the money and the technology to do this."

But if they don't, he assured the crowd that such a law can be enforced.

Still, he continued, parents also must bear a measure of the responsibility in monitoring what their children are doing online, and the best way to do that, is to "make sure the computer is in a central place in your house."

Other tips, including full lessons for law enforcement officers, parents and teachers, are available at www.ncdoj.com.

"A lot of people don't realize that kids are smart enough to access these sites, but not always wise enough to handle talking to these predators. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but you can't totally be safe," Cooper said. "You've got to learn, as a parent, how to take steps to protect your kids."

Also on the state Department of Justice Web site is a new sex offender registry search.

It allows people to enter their addresses and find out where sex offenders live and in some cases, what they look like and what their homes look like.

Concerned parents also can register for an e-mail alert system to notify them when offenders move into or out of their neighborhoods or to track certain ones.

"Parents can use this information to plan for the safety of their children," Cooper said.

But that's not all the attorney general's office is focused on.

They're also concerned about the state's growing gang problem.

"We are seeing a significant rise in gangs across North Carolina," Cooper said. "We have made gangs a priority to fight."

Helping combat that problem is a new SBI gang database that allows local law enforcement agencies the ability to check suspected gang colors, symbols and even members. Such a reference tool, he explained, makes it easier for police departments and sheriff's offices to identify, track and ultimately stop gang activities.

But, he continued, the best way to fight gangs is to keep kids out of them.

And finally, Cooper also touched on the issue of illegal immigration and what can be done on the state and local levels to help combat it.

One such effort that he tentatively endorsed was the cooperative program between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and county sheriff's offices to train deputies and jailers to identify and hold those criminals who are illegal immigrants for deportation. It's a program used in only a few counties including Mecklenburg, though others like Duplin also have applied for participation.

The General Assembly, however, is discussing legislation that could expand it statewide.

"Clearly illegal immigration is a federal problem we're dealing with on the state level," Cooper said.