By Ileana Morales
TAMPA, Fla (Reuters) - The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Attorney General's office said on Thursday that the merging of their units had resulted in 48 arrests involving online sex crimes against minors.
"Sexual predators are everywhere," Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said during a news conference. "And we had to make this a team effort."
The union of the online crime units kicked off in July with a six-month investigation called Operation Amalgamate, a name given to reflect their joining forces.
Mike Phillips, an FDLE assistant special agent in charge, said investigations were now streamlined, with specialized groups created to focus on online child exploitation.
Investigators found sexual predators using chat rooms, social networks, dating websites and classified advertisements to lure children. Phillips said arrests included predators trying to meet children or sharing child pornography. The children targeted included infants and teenagers.
Arrests were made in 17 counties in Florida, and among those detained were a teacher's assistant, a church treasurer, a Transportation Security Administration agent and a retired police officer.
One man allegedly shared child pornography from his million-dollar home. Another allegedly drove nearly 200 miles from Jacksonville to Tallahassee in hopes of having sex with a mother and her 13-year-old.
Bondi said it was a sad reality of society that children were exposed to this, and that parents should monitor what their children are doing online and on their cellphones.
"We are going to do everything in our power to put them out of business and behind bars hopefully forever," Bondi said.
Gerald Bailey, an FDLE commissioner, said these arrests were just the beginning, and new cases were coming in daily.
The number of arrests during this six-month period could not be measured against a period before the merger, Bailey said, but a comparison by numbers could be possible in about a year.
Bailey said the merger allowed the FDLE to expand its squads statewide, and they are also working with local law enforcement, the Florida Sheriff's Association and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)