By Rebecca Sherman
WEST VIRGINIA STATE POLICE First Sergeant James Kozik is known nationwide for his expertise in using technology to fight crimes against children. But getting to this high point in his career—serving as the state’s Crimes Against Children (CAC) Unit Director and Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Commander—has been a path as winding as the mountain roads in his state.
Internet child exploitation cases first began popping up in 2006, while Kozik was working narcotics and financial crimes for the WVSP’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations. “We were caught off guard here,” says Kozik, who, like most law enforcement 20 years ago, knew very little about the Internet. West Virginia’s lone pioneer in digital forensics at the time would give him the initial training he needed to investigate ICAC cases.
A year later, Kozik’s department received its first ICAC grant, and he became the unit’s alternate commander. “At the same time, the state was seeing cases involving hands-on offenses against children fall through the cracks, so we formed a separate unit of investigators,” focusing on real-world legwork and fact-finding, he recalls. In 2009, the new unit joined forces with the national ICAC Task Force. Then other programs were added, such as the state’s AMBER Alert Plan, Missing Child Clearinghouse, and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) collaboration.
As an investigator, training coordinator, and digital forensic analyst, Kozik helped build West Virginia’s first comprehensive CAC Unit, now an exemplary program modeled throughout the nation. He was named its Director in 2017. “We became an all-inclusive one stop: If it’s [a crime] against a kid, you come to us,” says Kozik, whose team includes 11 WVSP investigators. In this role, he wears many hats, including coordinating the state’s AMBER Alert and Blue Alert networks, and leading the state’s ICAC Task Force and Missing Child Clearinghouse.
Though he no longer investigates cases himself, Kozik works closely with law enforcement agencies throughout West Virginia when a child goes missing. “I’m the one who gets called in the middle of the night to find out whether an AMBER Alert can be activated or not,” he says. He also triages cases from NCMEC, a heartbreaking job sometimes requiring him to watch unspeakable videos of child abuse. “I just want to reach through the screen and help those kids,” he says.
Under Kozik’s leadership, West Virginia now has one of the country’s top ICAC Task Force Units. In 2012, he developed the first ICAC Data System, a website allowing thousands of registered law enforcement users to quickly and efficiently access and transfer cases, information, and tips. As the database’s ongoing project manager, Kozik has trained ICAC commanders and other law enforcement around the country to use it, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
In addition to two decades of on-the-job experience and a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice, Kozik has hundreds of hours of training in digital forensics and child exploitation. A highly regarded expert, he is often called upon to testify in state and federal prosecutions.
Fast-changing and complex, technology remains an important weapon in Kozik’s crime-solving arsenal, especially when it comes to finding missing and endangered children.
“Technology is incredibly useful in locating kids. I can put out an AMBER Alert and Facebook will splash it on every user’s [page] in West Virginia. I can reach a lot more people that way,” Kozik says. Conversely, “Technology is also a curse.” Social media often puts vulnerable kids at risk of serious harm by “friends” they meet on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and gaming voice and messaging platforms (Discord, Google Hangouts, and others).
These days, abductions by strangers are less common. On the rise are cases involving kids lured from home by adults they’ve met on the Internet—encounters that happen in secret, but often in plain sight of their parents. “We often really don’t know about it until the child doesn’t show up for dinner, or a parent finds something suspicious on their child’s cellphone,” he says.
While technology can be to blame for a child’s disappearance, it also can play a pivotal role in locating the child quickly—even before an AMBER Alert or Missing and Endangered Child Alert is issued. That involves local law enforcement pinging the child’s phone to find his or her location. This can be done with permission from a parent or guardian using a device-locating program or other app installed on the child’s phone. In some instances, a court order is needed. “A lot of crimes, not just AMBER Alerts, can be solved with technological tools,” he says. “I wish more law enforcement were trained on how to use them.”
To preserve the efficacy of AMBER Alerts—which for 27 years have been a powerful tool for alerting the public toan abducted child in peril—Kozik carefully evaluates each potential case to ensure it meets the state’s activation criteria. “If it doesn’t, I don’t put out an alert,” he says. “If you keep lighting up cell phones with unwarranted AMBER Alerts, people shut them off and they’re no longer effective.”
One complication Kozik routinely faces are requests from law enforcement agencies, even judges, who ask that AMBER Alerts be issued on behalf of Child Protective Services (CPS). This occurs when a legal or non-custodial parent being monitored by CPS has taken a child to an unknown location, but is not thought to pose a serious threat to the child’s safety. CPS often cites the parent’s past or current drug use, or impoverished status, as the reason for the child’s endangerment—but Kozik isn’t convinced. “A lot of people in West Virginia get caught up in drugs, and unfortunately don’t make the best decisions, but that doesn’t mean they will harm their kids,” he says. Thus, if law enforcement hasn’t issued an arrest warrant for kidnapping, and no imminent serious bodily danger is posed, Kozik will not activate an AMBER Alert.
Kozik urges law enforcement to use other investigative techniques besides AMBER Alerts or Endangered Missing Advisories to address the situation rapidly.
One way is by locating the parent’s car using license plate readers throughout the state. Another is tracking the missing parent and child via any cellphone(s) they may have. “Tracking their phones is easily done with an emergency court order, and does yield results, but police often don’t know they can do this,” Kozik says. He encourages all state law enforcement to just pick up the phone and call him if they are unclear on how to respond to a missing child incident, especially since a case remains fluid until it is solved. “A situation might not initially qualify as an AMBER Alert, but an hour later it might,” he says. “In the meantime, there are lots of other investigative techniques that can be tried.”
Technology is essential to combat crimes against children, but significant barriers often prevent it from being implemented. “A lot of older officers never think about the homing devices we all carry in our pockets or vehicles,” Kozik explains. “But as younger officers come on board who know technology, things will change.” Yet, even that hopeful thought faces a barrier. Younger recruits aren’t clamoring to become police officers, he notes. Bad publicity stemming from high profile police brutality cases in recent years could be to blame, he says. “We’re barely able to fill police cadet classes,” Kozik says. “Every agency in America is having a manpower shortage.”
There’s no easy answer to that dilemma, and even as Kozik is set to retire within two years, he wants to be as helpful as he can for as long as he can to make a difference.
“I’m passionate about my job. if I don’t do it, no one else will,” he says. “That’s what gets me going in the mornings.”