Kansas Investigators Use Advanced Analytics to Speed Their Work and Reduce Violent Crime
Junction City, Kansas, sits near the confluence of the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers, which form the Kansas River — also known as the Kaw. In the early 1870s, the mayor of Junction City hired the famed lawman and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok to help rid the growing frontier town of violent vigilante groups who were terrorizing the community. Today, the city’s 25,000 residents are served and protected by the 49 sworn officers and 25 civilian staff of the Junction City Police Department.
While Junction City’s rough-and-tumble frontier days are history, there’s still an ample supply of lawless actors committing all manner of crimes in the community. “I always say that Junction City has small-town people and big-city crime,” says Lieutenant Cory Odell, a 13-year law enforcement veteran who leads the department’s Investigations Division. “We’re really pushing hard to drive down the violent crime rate in our jurisdiction. And we see the gamut, from homicides to narcotics trafficking to aggravated assaults and batteries.”
As part of their work to reduce violent crime, and other crimes like financial and property crime, the Junction City Police Department is pursuing a digital strategy and using advanced technology to gather Digital Intelligence more easily and expedite investigative work. Digital Intelligence is the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types — such as smartphones, computers, and the Cloud — and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage, and obtain insights from this data to run more effective and efficient investigations.
“If you don’t have a digital strategy, you’re going to lose the battle. There’s no way to be successful in law enforcement now if you don’t have a digital arm. You’re going to miss things, you’re going to miss people, and you’re not going to get a handle on your crime.”
The Junction City Police Department has used Cellebrite access solutions for years to help protect and save lives, accelerate justice, and preserve data privacy. But recently, it adopted Cellebrite Pathfinder to automate the analysis of digital data and visualize case narratives. It also added Cellebrite Premium, a solution for accessing and collecting Digital Intelligence from all iOS and high-end Android devices faster. The department expects these investments to be especially useful in expediting narcotics investigations, which often demand quick analysis of multiple devices.
Finding a Better Way to Manage Data and Track Connections Between Criminal Actors
Lieutenant Odell and his team, including Detective Michael Vallon, had been trying for years to make the case for adding Cellebrite Pathfinder — at the very least — to investigators’ technology toolset. Last year, they finally made a breakthrough, convincing the department’s new, tech-friendly and forward-looking leadership that investing in both Cellebrite Pathfinder and Cellebrite Premium would help to speed investigations and deliver significant value to the department both immediately and over time.
Now, investigators need to show that value — and it will be a continuous exercise, according to Lieutenant Odell. “One of our biggest challenges as a department is funding,” he explains. “Our chief likes to say, ‘Whenever we spend money, it has to be value-added for the agency.’ So, we will need to keep demonstrating ROI over the long term.”
Lieutenant Odell says he isn’t worried about his team’s ability to deliver on that expectation — describing Cellebrite’s technology as “a value-add” in itself. And Detective Vallon, who joined the department in 2012, knows firsthand what difference-makers these Digital Intelligence solutions are for investigators. For several years, he was solely responsible for performing examinations of digital devices for the department. His recent promotion to lead the Patrol Division means he can’t devote as much time to collecting digital evidence for cases now, so the department is training another team member to take the lead on this work.
Detective Vallon says the new Cellebrite solutions, implemented in 2020, have already enhanced the department’s efficiency, especially on investigations that require the examination of encrypted Android devices. “I’m very, very impressed with Cellebrite Premium,” he says. “In the past, I had to drive about an hour each way to Topeka to get assistance from another agency in accessing and collecting digital evidence from Androids. It was very tedious and time-consuming, and it took me away from other investigative work. That’s one reason I started to push even harder for our department to adopt Cellebrite Premium — that, and the fact we’re seeing more and more Android devices.”
“More and more, the court is expecting to see digital evidence when you take cases to court…It’s almost to the point where if we don’t have digital evidence to present with the case, there’s a likelihood the case won’t be prosecuted.”
As for Cellebrite Pathfinder, Detective Vallon said that Junction City Police Department’s new leadership could see how the solution would help investigators filter through Digital Intelligence faster to get the necessary evidence to make arrests and support prosecutions. He adds that the department expects the solution to be invaluable in streamlining work on narcotics investigations.
“With any narcotics search warrant, you’ll end up with multiple devices to examine and a lot of Digital Intelligence,” says Detective Vallon. “That was a big selling point for getting Cellebrite Pathfinder. We need somewhere to put all that data so we can filter through it more efficiently.”
Cellebrite Pathfinder, in addition to streamlining the investigative process, uses advanced artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze and visualize data from digital sources. It identifies patterns, reveals connections, and uncovers leads with speed and accuracy. And Lieutenant Odell says he’s especially eager to see how the solution can help his team build a “map” of the local crime community in Junction City and hopefully, dismantle and disrupt criminal networks in the area.
“We’re a small enough jurisdiction that the criminals all know each other and learn from each other,” he explains. “It will be very interesting to use Cellebrite Pathfinder to create the various ‘family trees’ of criminals. It will help us understand who is learning from who and what MOs are being passed on.”
Looking to the Past to Make the Case for Investing in the Department’s Future
Aside from highlighting how the new capabilities in Cellebrite Pathfinder and Cellebrite Premium would advance the investigative life cycle, how did Lieutenant Odell, Detective Vallon, and their colleagues convince the Junction City Police Department’s leadership to invest in these two solutions? They pointed to a drug interdiction case from the past decade, which they say was the turning point when investigators realized the agency should expand its use of Cellebrite solutions as soon as possible.
In June 2013, an interdiction officer stopped a driver for speeding in Junction City. During the stop, the officer searched the driver’s pickup truck and found nearly $850,000 in cash, along with evidence of narcotics trafficking. Investigators with the Junction City Police Department used Cellebrite Physical Analyzer, which they had recently adopted, to collect data from the suspect’s mobile phone.
“Our successful investigation of this case was directly related to the enhanced capabilities we had from Cellebrite Physical Analyzer. And we’ve used Cellebrite technology on every major case since.”
The investigators found the full message history between the suspect and the individuals he was working for — but that wasn’t all. “The suspect was running GPS on his phone,” says Lieutenant Odell. “And the examination of digital evidence from the device showed all the GPS points through different states. After that, federal authorities got involved, and there was a major seizure of both currency and narcotics.”
The suspect, who was in his late 70s when he was arrested, was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison for running a massive drug operation that netted millions of dollars over several decades. And it all began with that one traffic stop on a summer’s night in Junction City.
“Our successful investigation of this case was directly related to the enhanced capabilities we had from Cellebrite Physical Analyzer,” says Lieutenant Odell. “And we’ve used Cellebrite technology on every major case since.” However, he also notes that the investigation would’ve taken much less time if the team had Cellebrite Pathfinder back then.
Transforming the Investigation Process with Technology — for the Better
Lieutenant Odell and Detective Vallon say almost every case they encounter now involves some aspect of digital evidence collection — and that this evidence is becoming increasingly critical for prosecutions.
“More and more, the court is expecting to see digital evidence when you take cases to court,” says Lieutenant Odell. “And not just for major drug cases or felony-level homicides, but all types of cases. It’s almost to the point where if we don’t have digital evidence to present with the case, there’s a likelihood the case won’t be prosecuted.”
Lieutenant Odell further stresses the importance of law enforcement agencies, including smaller departments like Junction City’s, adopting a formal, digital strategy. “If you don’t have a digital strategy, you’re going to lose the battle,” he says. “There’s no way to be successful in law enforcement now if you don’t have a digital arm. You’re going to miss things, you’re going to miss people, and you’re not going to get a handle on your crime.”
Odell continues, “Technology has stood our investigation process on its head. When I started in law enforcement, we’d conduct interviews, look for videos, and do all the legwork first. Then, we might get a search warrant and look at a device. But now, after we get a warrant, one of the first things we do is examine mobile devices. Based on the digital evidence we find, then we say, ‘OK, now let’s go talk to this person or that person and see if maybe we can find some video.’ In short, Digital Intelligence solutions have completely reversed the order of our investigative work.”