Angleton Police Department Logo – Angleton, TX – Source: Angleton Police Department Website

The Angleton Police Department is typical of many smaller community law enforcement agencies responsible for protecting communities across America. Located in Angleton, TX the department has about 40 officers serving a thriving community of close to 20,000 residents. Angleton is also the seat for Brazoria County.

What distinguishes Angleton PD from many other smaller departments, however, is that they have their own digital forensics lab. Under the care of Corporal Detective (CD) Cory Budnick, the lab supports its own department as well as smaller forces from surrounding communities. But this wasn’t always the case.

Like many towns, Angleton has experienced rapid growth with new neighborhoods seeming to pop up everywhere. As the town has grown, crime has also risen, and with it, caseloads for the Angleton PD. In a typical month, CD Budnick and his team of five handle anywhere from 20 to 30 cases, and sometimes as many as 40.

As caseloads increased, CD Budnick saw the need to establish a digital forensics lab of their own. “Over time, I’ve seen us getting [more] digital evidence.… Every case, to some extent, has a cell phone involved. So I saw a need for us to develop our own options, rather than relying on other departments [to supply evidence].

“With other departments, you’re kind of at the mercy of their caseload, so there would be a long lag time between getting that evidence… You want to keep that rhythm [of an investigation] going, and you’re sitting there, waiting for evidence that could be crucial to your case.… So we needed to develop our own in-house solution to get these cases and this evidence moving along.”

Fortunately, there was some extra space available in their building, which allowed CD Budnick to build what he affectionately calls the “Cellebrite Room”—Angleton’s first digital forensics lab.

The Challenges

Getting the lab up and running wasn’t easy—hurdles that CD Budnick and his team are slowly overcoming have included:

Heavy caseloads: With the high volume of caseloads they’re handling, CD Budnick and his team are challenged at times to both extract evidence from digital devices and provide an analysis of the data to deliver actionable intelligence to investigators. Like many organizations, Angleton PD utilizes a triage system.

While every case is important, sensitive cases, like homicides or child abuse cases where time is of the essence to protect victims, get the full-court press. CD Budnick will extract the data and provide an analysis. In less extreme cases, he is able to generate a report using Cellebrite solutions that he provides for the investigating officer. “I usually overlook it,” he says. “If they have questions like, ‘How do I get this information?’ I’ll go and assist them. But it’s been a real challenge because obviously you’ve got a full caseload and you’ve got to devote [time] to that. And that’s a job in itself.”

Tech challenges: Before they built their own lab and onboarded Cellebrite technology, CD Budnick had to rely on outside agencies to handle phone extractions and provide actionable intel. “There definitely was a gap where we were relying on other departments,” CD Budnick explains. At times he found that other departments were also at the mercy of primitive software that did not support certain cell phones or computers. Once he got Cellebrite, however, things got a lot better.

Using technology as a force multiplier

CD Budnick was able to show the City Council the value of what his department could do to expedite time to evidence if they were able to secure the right technology. The Angleton City Council approved and his department was able to onboard Cellebrite’s UFED and Cellebrite Premium as a Service at the same time.

Premium as a Service has proven to be invaluable for accessing data from the widest range of iOS and Android devices, but CD Budnick and his team also discovered that not every bad actor uses the most up-to-date technology. This is where UFED has been a huge asset in extracting data from older cellphone models. “I think I’ve even done a couple of flip phones on it,” CD Budnick explains.

Angleton Police Department Staff – Angleton, TX – Source: Angleton Police Department Website

Benefits

Being able to access data faster to expedite case closures has been a primary benefit for the Angleton PD team, but Cellebrite technology has also helped the department in a number of other ways.

Improving workflow: Incorporating Cellebrite solutions into their investigative workflow has greatly streamlined the evidence-gathering process. Turnaround times on devices are now much faster, which moves cases along quicker.

Expediting time to evidence: Since they are now self-sufficient, CD Budnick and his team don’t need to wait weeks (and sometimes months) to get the evidence back from other agencies. Investigators get the evidence they need quickly, which makes case-solving far more efficient.

Closing the public-safety gap: Because Angleton PD can close more cases faster, bad actors are taken off the streets more quickly, which boosts community safety and confidence that Angleton PD is doing their job.

Protecting the chain of custody: Cellebrite solutions provide the means to keep the digital chain of custody secure. As CD Budnick explains, “When we collect a phone, that case detective—or myself, if I’m working the case—collects the phone. There are only one or two people involved in that chain of custody, so there’s less room for issues and documentation issues.

“On top of that, some of these phones can take a while to unlock, so when you’re sending it off to another department, you’re having to keep up with that phone, and it could be weeks, months, and that chain of custody kind of gets a little blurrier… When it’s in-house here, we know where the phone is and we have our own way of controlling that environment, definitely making our chain of custody a lot clearer.”

Information sharing: Smaller departments that may not necessarily have the budget to afford Digital Intelligence solutions, often ask CD Budnick and his team for assistance. This, in turn, gives Angleton PD a benefit. By getting involved in cases from other departments, CD Budnick and his team are getting information about certain crimes being committed by certain persons that they can correlate to their own cases. Many times, it’s clear to see that crimes being committed elsewhere are being perpetrated by the same people.

“I know we’re working with Lake Jackson,” CD Budnick says. “There’s been a lot of crime here lately that… What’s happening in Lake Jackson is happening here. It’s the same group of people, so us being able to have that open line of communication [helps]… And it really did start through digital forensics…. Being able to help these other agencies out, assisting them, and then being able to get their information and pick their brain [helps solve our cases].”

Perhaps most important is that many times, digital evidence is the lynchpin in solving cases. As CD Budnick explains, “Sometimes it’s [digital evidence] is the only evidence we have, and it’s the only evidence we need for the case. In some cases I’ve worked, what made or broke the case, was finding those downloads or finding the pictures on the phone.” Such was the case in the following case study.

Angleton Police Department Vehicle – Angleton, TX – Source: Angleton Police Department Website

Stopping a sexual predator

In a case that has been resolved, a victim was having a relationship with a relative, who was over 40 years old.

Angleton police received a call that the victim and a suspect were seen in a local cemetery kissing. It seemed odd to the caller because the suspect, who appeared to be much older, was with this young victim and the two were acting like they were in a relationship.

Officers arrived on the scene and located the victim, who was on her phone. The suspect had already gone. Angleton police opened a case because of an allegation made previously by the victim’s father. Since the victim was under 18, the suspect’s father had consented to allow police to check the victim’s phone.

While the officer checked the phone on the scene, he noticed there were images being shared between the victim and an older suspect. At that point, it was determined that the suspect was much older and because the suspect was a juvenile, the phone was acquired and a download of the phone was conducted at the Angleton lab using Cellebrite technology.

Going through the cell phone, CD Budnick and his team were able to observe that the victim had been deleting information, and it appeared that it was recent information that was had shared. His team was able to recover some of the deleted images, including the older suspect and the victim together, engaging in sexual activities.

As CD Budnick explained, “It was great that we were able to see the deleted information…some of these pictures depicted a location, and then we were able to confirm that the phone was at that [location]. So that was pretty crucial in helping us get charges because obviously, we have to know the location of these events.

“So the cell phone, in that instance, kind of broke the case wide open, because the victim wasn’t wanting to admit to it….We were able to recover text messages, images… There was so much that we recovered off of her phone that we went ahead and got charges on the suspect, and we actually got a conviction off of it. I mean, the evidence obtained through the cell phone dump was pretty damning. We were able to identify the person, I mean, tattoos and everything. It was great.”

The man is now serving an extended jail sentence.

Training is key

CD Budnick is big on ensuring that front-line officers are properly trained to handle cell phones found at crime scenes. “They just have a basic understanding of how the phone operates, but not necessarily how to preserve certain kinds of data on those phones, and how certain phones operate if, say, you remove a SIM card or you power it off. They don’t understand After First Unlock / Before First Unlock, so they need that explanation to understand…why they’re doing something.

cellebrite-training
Cellebrite Training – Source: Cellebrite

Formal classes and online tutorials are two great sources that CD Budnick is advocating to ensure digital evidence is preserved and can be used in court when prosecutions occur.

When asked what he recommends that other departments do to digitally transform, CD Budnick had this to say. “We’re coming into a time where you pretty much have to have video or that smoking gun to get a conviction in a crime. It’s no more a ‘totality of circumstance’ kind of thing. It’s become ‘You’ve got to have this evidence.’

And with us having cell phones constantly on us, having a tool that is able to extract their information and prove certain elements of a crime [or exonerate an innocent person]… I mean, that’s huge. What I would recommend to another department, is definitely biting the bullet now and getting in, and getting your officers trained on these systems and understanding these systems, and pushing forward with it”

Advocating for Digital Intelligence solutions is something that administrations need to approach in a different way when they ask their City Councils for funding. For Angleton Police Department, Brazoria County was instrumental in helping provide the necessary investment.

As CD Budnick explains, administrators need to argue that, “This isn’t something we can kick the can down the road a couple of more years. This is a tool, like a police vehicle or a police officer’s gun. It’s another tool in our repertoire to solve these cases. … It’s not cheap, but neither are vehicles. So that’s the argument: Yes, a vehicle is fundamentally important, because it gets you from point A to point B. Well, so is Cellebrite, [because it gets] you from point A to point B in your cases.”

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