Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office: How Digital Transformation Made This Agency a Model for Solving Modern Crimes
A collaborative vision, backed by executive support, helped the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office create a Digital Intelligence workflow that moves easily—from the field to the lab to the courtroom—to solve more cases faster.
“Data overload” is a pain point understood by any investigator who’s ever dumped a phone and tried to make heads or tails out of the sea of data that comes flooding out. Sgt. Solomon Burke of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office describes today’s deluge this way, “Sometimes now it’s almost like a tsunami. It’s so much information that the detective, or even the analyst, doesn’t have the time needed to go through everything.”
Sound familiar? Solving the data dilemma is a challenge every agency is facing. What sets Jefferson Parish apart, however, is the vision they had to transform the way they conduct investigations by leveraging the digital intelligence assets they already had in place. They then supplemented them with the latest analytics technology to create a 360-view of cases that follows a seamless flow of information from the field to the lab to the investigative team, and ultimately, to the courtroom.
As Deputy Chief Timothy Scanlan, Commander of the Technical Services Bureau explained in a recent interview, his department has evolved through several sheriff’s tenures to get where it is today. In all those years of transformation, however, one thing has remained constant—support from the sheriffs at the top who have always had a clear understanding of how technology can move investigations forward and a willingness to invest in it.
Support From Above
The Digital Forensics Unit was started by Sheriff Newell Normand, but it has grown in scope, size, and mission under Sheriff Joseph Lopinto.
“Detective Stephen Villere actually started the unit…when Stephen retired, Solomon continued on Stephen’s path of developing the unit, getting the stuff we needed, and buying the newest Analytics.” So it was definitely a team effort between those two.…
Chief Scanlan brought his own unique vision to the unit based on his years as a firearms examiner, crime scene reconstructionist, bloodstain pattern analyst, and lab director.
Sgt. Burke started his career working homicide. He had an interest in technology and as he puts it, “I started messing with cell phones… As technology became more pervasive in our investigations, I realized ‘We have to start looking at this stuff [data] in a different way.’”
“Sometimes now it’s almost like a tsunami. It’s so much information that the detective, or even the analyst, doesn’t have the time needed to go through everything.”
With support from Sheriff Lopinto and Chief Scanlan, Sgt. Burke began taking classes. He now has a bachelor’s degree from Tulane University and is doing advanced courses at Stanford University.
Working together, Sgt. Burke and Chief Scanlan developed a remarkable solution and in the process, created the digital lab of the 21st Century.
Here’s how Jefferson Parish became a model for digital policing.
Pushing Solve Rates to New Heights
When Chief Scanlan and Sgt. Burke began to formulate their digital intelligence strategy to access, manage, analyze, and leverage data to provide actionable intelligence, their goal was to solve more cases and significantly lower the parish’s crime rate. Their strategy has clearly worked.
According to FBI Unified Crime Report data, in 2019 Jefferson Parish had its lowest crime rate since 1974, the year it started to submit statistics to the FBI. Solving crimes quickly, which prevents future crimes and limits serial offenders, played a large role in this reduction.
A Vision for the Future
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office covers Criminal, Civil, Tax Collection, the Correctional Center, and the 911 center. The Digital Forensics Unit, which falls under Chief Scanlan’s Technical Services Bureau, supports all five departments with any kind of digital intelligence they need. They also take in evidence from other parishes that don’t have a digital forensics unit.
It wasn’t always this way, however. Sgt. Burke remembers the old days when he began learning from Stephen Villere. “Back then (2010) we had a Cellebrite Classic, that was it.”
Over the years Sgt. Burke and Chief Scanlan began to build their technology assets and skills—all backed by the support of Sheriff Lopinto.
The first step was to decrease case backlogs. They accomplished this by using Cellebrite Responder Kiosks in the field and in the station. This pushed the responsibility for doing minor extractions back out to the frontline officers, which in turn relieved pressure on the lab examiners, freeing them to concentrate on more complex cases.
“My first year as a full-time forensic cell phone examiner , I did 800 devices,” Sgt. Burke recalled. “Now, because we have the kiosks… we probably take in somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 devices a year, which allows the unit to conduct a more thorough analysis on each device.”
Once case backlogs were under control, the team turned its focus to the workflow. Creating a state-of-the-art lab and investigator training program were at the heart of their strategy.
The Lab of the Future
With Sheriff Lopinto’s support, Chief Scanlan and Sgt. Burke’s began to build a digital intelligence lab that would serve their agency for a decade or more. And they’ve done it. Jefferson Parish’s lab isn’t just cutting edge, it is the edge with key elements seeming to come straight out of Star Wars.
“Technology acts as a force multiplier throughout all of forensics. Database systems like AFIS for fingerprints, CODIS for DNA, NIBIN for firearms—all allow us to search huge queries that we couldn’t do on our own.”
“Since I’ve taken over the unit, we moved into a new lab space,” Sgt. Burke said. “We also bought custom-built forensic analysis stations, which increases productivity and collaboration between examiners. I have two 34-inch Dell ultra-4K curved monitors in front of me that are connected to a KVM. I can open Cellebrite Physical Analyzer on one side and I can be doing other things on the other side… It’s also made so that if another examiner wants to view something or hook up, there are ledges behind you that they can put a laptop down on, and easily collaborate on a project.”
Making Extractions Tamper Proof
“We are also moving to a new process for how we extract devices and analyze them [by] building an extraction room, which is a giant Faraday room…[It’s] actually like a submarine. There’s an exterior door you step through. [When] you lock it, it’ll go from red to green. When the light goes green, that’s your signal that you can open the interior door. You open the interior door, step in, [and] lock it. It’ll go from red to green. That means no signal is penetrating the room at all.”
“In [the extraction room], there will be six workstations…Each analyst is assigned a workstation. At that station will be a tower, and monitors, and probably UFED 4PC, Cellebrite BlackLight, or whatever we’re using to do an extraction.”
“Processing the actual device will occur in that room. That way the data is in no way able to be compromised.”
“Data is pumped into our internal server, which only the six analysts in this room have access to…. And then it goes into the shared server [where] we would pull it down onto our individual workstations and then load it into the tool that we’re going to use to examine the data.”
“We made the purchase of Analytics (Cellebrite Pathfinder). Before that, we were creating individual USBs and CDs of the extractions. Now we place the data into Cellebrite Pathfinder, and we send the detective an email [that says] ‘Hey, you have a device that was successfully extracted. That data is now in Pathfinder and available for you to view… Log in to this URL on an internal network and you’ll be able to see your device. And it will do the sorting for you.’”
Chief Scanlan summed it up by saying, “Technology acts as a force multiplier throughout all of forensics. Database systems like AFIS for fingerprints, CODIS for DNA, NIBIN for firearms—all allow us to search huge queries that we couldn’t do on our own.
“Analytics software allows us to look at multiple cases, compare phones to each other, and really take a deep dive. Instead of handing a detective a thumb drive with one phone on it, we now give them access to multiple phones in a case. They can collaborate with each other and build those cases. Analytics is only going to strengthen us, moving forward.”
What makes Jefferson Parish’s Technical Services Bureau unique, however, is how they’re looking at ways to get these different technologies and databases to mash up to create an even bigger picture.
“Because I come from a firearms background,” Chief Scanlan explained, “we have these in-depth flowcharts that show when crimes were committed with the same weapon or group of weapons. But if you can add [a suspect’s] vehicle data through ALPR showing that ‘Hey, their car was in the area when this happened,’ and then you use the cell phone and say, ‘Hey, look. This is where their cell phone was during the crimes and the text messages sent before and after,’ it paints the big picture, using all the different technology.”
What makes Chief Scanlan and Sgt. Burke’s vision truly remarkable, however, isn’t just the technical wizardry in their lab and the creative ways they’re using it to solve crimes, but the way they envision the lab being used as a training center for hundreds of officers in their own organization and beyond.
“Training is extremely important,” Chief Scanlan explains. “However, if the people who are going to use it [digital technology] each and every day—your prosecutors, your detectives, all of those people who are going use it to build their case—if they don’t understand how to use it, if it’s too complex, or if they don’t see the benefit, they’re not going use it and things are going to get missed.”
Beyond The Lab
To date, Sgt. Burke has run about 100 detectives through Pathfinder training. But his vision is much larger. “By the time we’re done, you’re probably looking at… more than 200 detectives…We have what they call ‘district follow-up guys.’ We also have ‘traffic follow-up guys.’ As time goes on, we’ll bring them into the fold, and they’ll all be able to use it.”
Getting Pathfinder took a proof of concept, which Cellebrite conducted on-site for Sgt. Burke and his team. Cellebrite Pathfinder automatically merges large quantities of disparate mobile, cloud, computer, and telco data sources so users can simultaneously identify patterns, reveal connections, and uncover leads with greater speed and accuracy.
“Analytics software allows us to look at multiple cases, compare phones to each other, and really take a deep dive. Instead of handing a detective a thumb drive with one phone on it, we now give them access to multiple phones in a case…Analytics is only going to strengthen us, moving forward.”
In a day and a half, they ran dozens of detectives of all skill levels through an introductory course. The beauty of Pathfinder is that it allows you to visualize all of the evidence in a concise dashboard that uses icons to delineate between different types of evidence to help investigators know what to focus on.
“When the dashboard came up,” Sgt. Burke explains, “and there was a gun symbol, and a drug symbol, and a child sex crimes symbol, and it shows you your top contacts, and stuff like that—when I saw that they [the detectives] immediately understood the value of what they were staring at, that was it.”
“I went to Chief Scanlan, and told him, ‘Look, Chief, not only is this going to be a faster delivery system,… it’s going to help them do their job more effectively, and it is going to make it less taxing on our analysts.”
Chief Scanlan and Sheriff Lopinto recognized the clear benefit and the rest is history.
Reflecting on the detectives he works with Sgt. Burke says, “We try to make sure they understand the technology—how to use it, what it can do for them, [and] what it can’t do for them. We want them to be informed. We want them to understand, when they’re on a scene, the value of what they’re staring at and what it could do for them.”
“We were lucky with the Chief, Tim Scanlan; and with Stephen [Villere]… understanding and seeing that the future of digital forensics is going to be what DNA used to be,” Sgt. Burke said. “They had the forethought to see and understand the digital world we’re moving into. Right now, it’s devices, it’s computers, it’s phones, tablets, [and] towers. Tomorrow it will be other things.”
“We are continuously training [and] constantly learning. We are moving into vehicle forensics. We’re moving into the Internet of Things. We’re understanding that we may have to figure out a way to extract and download a refrigerator, or a thermostat, or doorbell systems apps. And the Chief understands that. Our Sheriff understands that. Stephen understood it. I understand it.”
“Part of why we teach the detectives and try to pass that on to them is because we want them to begin to understand it. We want them to begin to realize, ‘This stuff is more important than we think. This stuff could lead us to where we need to get to go.’”
From what we can see, Jefferson Parish is on the right path.