Facing Staff and Budget Shortages, Emerging Tech is Key for Aberdeen PD
As if law enforcement weren’t hard enough, agencies around the nation continue to be burdened by budgeting and staffing shortages. In Seattle, for instance, officer staffing levels are at their lowest in more than 30 years, with over 400 officers departing since 2019.
The Aberdeen Police Department, just about two hours outside of Seattle, is feeling the strain as well.
“It’s a really tough time in law enforcement,” said Detective T.J. Millard of the Aberdeen PD. “Crime is up, and it’s hard to find people who want to do the job. Not only are the officers affected, but the communities are, too.”
In the face of these challenges, emerging technology is helping officers like Det. Millard do more with less. Like many agencies, he’s a one-man-show in the digital forensics department leveraging available tools for the greater good of his department and community.
“When I moved into investigations a few years ago, we were a small department without much in terms of technology,” he shared. “As I’ve settled into this role, I’ve discovered what’s out there and what we need. Technology can make or break any case, whether it’s internet crime against children (ICAC), homicides, or violent crimes.”
Case in Point
According to Det. Millard, one case, in particular, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. His department received a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) involving possible ICAC activity. One of the five suspects was a father allegedly using his daughter to produce ICAC-related images.
“This is when I really started to dive into digital forensics,” Det. Millard recalled. “The Facebook report for one of the suspects was a 20,000-page PDF. And that return was for just one of the five suspects, so imagine how overwhelming that can be.”
To lighten the load of this laborious task, Det. Millard first parsed the Facebook data with the FBI’s National Domestic Communications Assistance Center tools (NDCAC) then took it to the next level with Cellebrite Physical Analyzer.
“That immediately changed our whole outlook on the case, because we could actually deliver digital evidence in a presentable, readable format to the prosecution and defense,” he said. “And as a result, we were able to exonerate one of the suspects and convict the other four.
After that case, Det. Millard went full force into digital intelligence. He discussed the limitations of the department’s computers with his commander who was very forward-thinking—and he agreed to invest.
“He unofficially tasked me with spearheading the department’s digital forensics. That led me to the National Computer Forensics Institute (NCFI)where they provide high-quality equipment and training .”
Collaboration Can Make All the Difference
Once Det. Millard had the NCFI training, he added Cellebrite UFED 4PC and Cellebrite Physical Analyzer to his arsenal, then started building partnerships outside of the department and the region. Having worked in commercial banking for 12 years before moving to law enforcement, he knew the power of networking and collaboration. Building a relationship with the FBI, Secret Service and other federal partners was at the top of his list.
His FBI partners in Seattle helped accelerate one of his cases involving kidnapping, robbery, and assault. With one quick phone call, he was able to borrow the department’s Cellebrite Premium to access mobile phones that were integral to the case. In less than half a day, he had key evidence to support the investigation.
“When we’re really in need, they come through for us. And Cellebrite Premium saved the day.”
Det. Millard also stressed the importance of building relationships with other agencies—something he believes officers sometimes overlook. He’s personally been able to lend a hand to investigations at larger departments outside Aberdeen that aren’t familiar with some of the latest technology.
“Once I successfully completed a few geofence warrants, I sort of became the local go-to guy to help surrounding departments with them.”
As Det. Millard puts it, digital intelligence gives the investigators more confidence in what they’re doing as they prove or disprove what actually happened.
Looking Ahead (and Behind)
To put it simply, technology and policing go hand and hand. At this point, Det. Millard estimates he has approximately 100 warrants a year associated with digital evidence. He has also been able to go back and solve cold cases with technology that gave his team new leads.
Thanks to the commitment and results that officers like Det. Millard deliver, decision-makers in law enforcement are realizing the importance of digital investigations.
“Very rarely are you only dusting for fingerprints anymore. You’re seizing phones and writing warrants for digital evidence, like social media,” Det. Millard explained.
Digital and physical evidence used to be managed separately. In recent years, however, courts recognize and prioritize both types equally regarding their chains of custody and evidence integrity. That’s a key development, especially when it comes to the defense who are also keeping up with the technology landscape.
“Defense attorneys are starting to become very educated on some of the tools that law enforcement uses,” Det. Millard said. “We have occasionally seen the defense trying to poke holes in cases, but it’s very difficult to discredit digital evidence. It’s infallible in a sense.”
When the technology delivers airtight evidence, the prosecutor can use it to take to trial or work on a deal with the defense. The departments that have been able to embrace the impact of technology get better results.
“Without a doubt, if you’re not in the technology game at your department, you’re doing your department a disservice,” Det. Millard emphasized.