Vanderburgh County Cyber Crime Task Force Demonstrated How Agencies Can Digitally Transform to Increase Public Safety
Digital Intelligence (DI) has quickly become a driving force in criminal investigations of all kinds. Cellebrite’s upcoming 2022 Industry Trends Survey, which included responses from over 2,000 law enforcement personnel and more than 100 police chiefs and other agency leaders, revealed that 61% of agency managers agreed or strongly agreed that digital evidence has surpassed DNA evidence in its importance in solving cases. And a whopping 81% of agency managers agreed or strongly agreed that the likelihood of case closure grows when digital evidence is available.
Agencies of all sizes understand the value of DI in being able to bring justice to those who break the law and exonerate the innocent. And while funding from the current administration under The Safer America Plan and the America Rescue Plan will be significant, particularly for some larger agencies, many smaller departments may not see big funding changes.
Forward-thinking managers at many smaller police departments want to digitally transform their departments, streamline their workflows, and change their investigative culture with modern technology solutions and training, but they simply don’t know how to secure funding or where to begin.
Recently, we had a chance to speak with Jessica Powers, director of the Vanderburgh County Cyber Crime Task Force in Evansville, Indiana. Director Powers’ story is unique in that she started with little more than a vision to digitally transform her department. Over time, however, Director Powers built her unit into a DI juggernaut that now services 26 agencies from 13 states.
Transforming her department wasn’t easy, however, and her team still faces many of the challenges law enforcement agencies everywhere are grappling with, but the Vanderburgh County Cyber Crime Task Force is a study of how vision and perseverance can transform any department to better protect the citizens they serve.
The Road to Transformation
Like many agencies, Vanderburgh’s need to transform was born out of the need to rapidly obtain actionable intelligence. Prior to their transformation, it was taking six to nine months to retrieve data from devices (if they got anything at all). To begin the process, Director Powers borrowed an idea from Notre Dame and Purdue universities to partner with the prosecutor’s office to support the revamping of their digital evidence workflow. With their help, she was able to access federal dollars to get the project off the ground.
Director Powers’ goal was bold: instead of having a six- to nine-month turnaround, her team would provide actionable intelligence in just three days! As Director Powers explained, “We should be able, within three days, to tell you ‘We’re going to get everything off of it [a device], and this is what you can expect. We can’t get anything off of it, so you need to go in a different direction. We believe that the software will support this, just not right now.’ That at least lets them target their investigation a certain way.”
The big impact, and something she never anticipated, was the huge reduction in disposition time, which has become a game-changer for her department. “With the data that we’re churning out from over a thousand devices [in 18 months], our average disposition time for felonies is about 137 days, compared to 250, which is the national average. So, we’ve seen the case impact on the back end of these cases, and now we’re just kind of riding the wave a little bit.”
Director Powers and her team didn’t get to turning around over 1,000 devices in 18 months overnight, however. They started out slowly, beginning with the Evansville Police Department and Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s office, and building from there. Word of mouth about the amazing work the Vanderburgh County Cyber Crime Task Force was doing began to spread, but a break in a big case involving a multistate motorcycle theft ring really put them on the map.
It didn’t take long for the local federal agency offices, which are located right across the street from Director Powers’ crime lab, to get the word and today her team fields requests from numerous federal agencies including the ATF, FBI, DEA, Secret Service, and U.S. Postal Service.
“It started with our Secret Service local agent having a successful extraction with us,” Director Powers explained, “and it just kind of blew up from there. Once they [agencies] figure out that you can do this, they’re going to use you.” This is one way other departments that are thinking about transitioning can fast-track their programs to get the resources they need.
Training Was Critical
One of the pain points that Director Powers and her team didn’t anticipate was having to retrain the law enforcement officers they work with. Initially, her team was receiving devices that were in a horrible state, simply because officers at the crime scene didn’t know how to handle digital devices properly:
- Devices were turned off because officers were told to do so.
- Officers on the scene were failing to try and get passcodes from witnesses and suspects.
- Phones weren’t being placed in airplane mode.
- Some officers tried to pop out the SIM cards themselves instead of securing the devices properly.
Setting up strict standard operating procedures (SOP’s) and educating frontline officers to keep devices powered on, logged in properly, and using Faraday bags to isolate devices and keep them from being wiped remotely were all part of the training.
Having team members that are well trained to support frontline officers has also been hugely helpful. Officer Gauge Shots, who works closely with Director Powers, has been to Secret Service training and has over 1,000 hours of digital technology training including every Cellebrite certification you can get. Having a resource like Officer Shots, who is literally just down the hall, provides a huge boost of confidence to outside agencies seeking help.
Director Powers was quick to point out that training is critical for staff members because defense attorneys are also becoming savvier about how to cross-examine investigators on the witness stand. “If we don’t have the training to back up what we’re saying and the certifications from every tool that we use, including Cellebrite…they’re going to dismantle our case. They’re going to dismantle the people. They’re going to cast a sense of doubt within the jury.”
Cross-training also allows other team members to step in to run solutions for pending cases when others are out of the office testifying in court or getting more training, so cases don’t back up.
How Cellebrite Solutions Have Helped
Cellebrite’s solutions were also a big help in getting investigators to see the possibilities if the right procedures are followed. Director Powers explained it this way saying,
“The Cellebrite suite of products has been able to show our detectives across all of those agencies—that ‘If you do these simple steps from the very beginning, we can get you, with the Cellebrite products, as much data as you could get anywhere. You don’t have to send it [devices] to some big agency out in L.A. or Florida. It’s right here. Like, it’s literally a quarter mile from your department.’”
– Director Jessica Powers, Vanderburgh County Cyber Crime Task Force, Evansville, IN
“So that has been kind of the turn that we needed to have with them. As long as we got one successful case with them, they trusted us, and they brought stuff down. We just needed to prove ourselves one time….Changing their mindset, and having the software to back it up has been a big opportunity for us.”
At present, Director Powers’ team has two separate machines for Premium iOS and Premium Android, two UFEDs, and Digital Collector (formerly MacQuisition). Together these solutions provide a big boost to their workflow, allowing the Vanderburgh County Cyber Crime Task Force to process more devices, provide actionable intelligence quicker for investigators in the field, and close more cases faster.
“I’ll be honest,” Director Powers continued. “There’s a reason people are after Cellebrite Premium…. As soon as agencies find out that we have one just by word of mouth, they start coming to us. Plus, with the entire workflow that we have with the Cellebrite products, I can assure agencies that I can attain those goals [three-day turnarounds on devices] that we just talked about.”
The Big Impact on Case Closures
Cellebrite’s suite of products has also had a huge impact on the success of her department including murder convictions, access to timely justice, and drastically decreasing evidence turnaround time. As Director Powers explained, “Based on the stats that we have, for the first year and half that we’ve been doing this, we’ve been able to churn out about a 73% successful prosecution rate.
“What we mean by that is plea agreement to the lead charge, guilty conviction, federal indictment, or no charges filed. We deem ‘no charges filed’ as a better use of resources than waiting six to nine months like before and then figuring out that you don’t have the evidence to move forward.
“The 73% successful prosecution rate is something that we’re really hanging our hat on, because if you have the quick turnaround time, if you have the best-trained individuals, but you’re not actually getting the results, then what’s the point of doing all this? So we’re having a higher successful prosecution rate, we’re doing that three-day actionable intelligence window, and we’re moving cases through the system quicker….That’s about as good as it can get.”
Key Cases Where Technology Made The Difference
Director Powers’ team has scored numerous victories, but two recent cases stand out where the use of DI solutions helped move the cases forward quickly.
In one case, a crime occurred where the victim was left by the roadside. Using Cellebrite solutions, Director Powers’ team was able to look at the suspect’s search history after the time of the crime to discover critical evidence that proved “intent” by the assailant. The suspect was convicted and is now serving a long-term sentence.
Exonerating the innocent is another way that DI solutions can be hugely helpful. In another alleged homicide case, Director Powers’ team was able to exonerate a prime suspect quickly, which allowed the investigation to pursue another suspect.
As Director Powers explained, “Within less than 12 hours, we were able to exonerate a suspect so that the name was never in the news with a charge, the mug shot didn’t pop up, and the suspect was never taken to jail.”
“While the original suspect was still in the interview room, we’re [accessing] the phone, and we’re seeing that significant locations, just all of the collective location data, has the suspect in a different state when this crime happens.”
Although it was a prime suspect, Director Powers and her team were able to use Cellebrite solutions to prove that the suspect was in another state at the time of the crime. “No one in the public will ever know that we did that,” Director Powers explained. That’s the whole point. The suspect’s name was never out there. The original suspect can continue life without having this charge popping up on every single search. And [investigators] subsequently arrested a person that they have more probable cause on.
“Because of Cellebrite getting us that data quickly, we were able to [prevent that person from being] charged; we were able to get the original suspect out of the interview room. Because of the quick turnaround time, detectives were able to go do a search warrant preservation record for the cell site records for the other suspect that they ended up arresting.
That kind of data disappears very quickly. Because Cellebrite gave us the answer on the other suspect, [investigators were] able to go get this information that hadn’t disappeared yet on the one that actually put the actual suspect at the crime scene within minutes of the crime. So, again, Cellebrite’s tools exonerated someone and then pointed us in the right direction very quickly.”
Advice for Agency Managers
When asked what advice she might have for smaller agencies that are just beginning their digital transformation journey, here’s what Director Powers recommended:
Learn To Write Grants: The Vanderburgh County Cyber Crime Task Force receives about $1.4 million in funding right now. Director Powers anticipates they will secure $1.8 million by next year. Securing that funding, however, has taken a lot of hard work in learning how to approach the grant process.
“I had to learn how to write grants,” Director Powers explained, “and write them to a point where I could get this funded. Part of the grant fine print is that we can’t accept payment. We cannot profit from this in any way. So that’s been kind of an issue that while we’re still on the grants we have to be very careful of.
However, we are starting to get stuff written into budgets, specifically [those of] our local entities, that would account for once the grants run out, which is next year. And then, specifically, the Secret Service has been fantastic. The Secret Service basically sends us down to their training, NCFI, in Alabama, and covers the majority of the cost, so that helps.”
Invest In Your Staff Members Through Training: “One of the things that I can give them [staff members] is… training opportunities to deepen their knowledge base. I can’t necessarily deepen their pocketbook, but I can give them experiences to be able to be smarter with what they’re doing [and] have a different viewpoint with what they’re doing. And the more training I can give them means that they can testify in more cases, they can see more things, and truly support the inner drive [to see people exonerated or convicted and to truly help the community] that they already have.”
Officer Shots explained it this way, “You want to make sure you’re maintaining the chain of custody, that you’re using sterile media, things of that nature. All of these things could be missed if you don’t have the proper training, and then it all culminates in the end when you’re sitting in the seat [witness stand] and you get that surprise question. I mean, I’m not saying I’m not ever going to be surprised by a question, but I feel like I can handle that at this point with the number of successful training programs that I’ve been to and the amount of knowledge that I’ve accrued in the last 18 months.”
Using Technology as a Force Multiplier: For those who are just starting out on their digital journey, the road to transformation can be viewed in two ways. As Director Powers explained, “We could very easily look at this Digital Intelligence wave as something that’s a burden, something that is expensive, or you can look at it as a force multiplier. There’s all this evidence that’s out there, you’ve just got to go find it, and you’ve got to have the right tools to do it, and you’ve got to have the right people.”
Be Persistent: “We had absolutely nothing [in the beginning],” Director Powers explained, “and I wrote a couple of grants. We got denied on a couple of them, and one of them hit. I mean, it’s like writing a college term paper. It just hit. You know, 20 pages later, and we were just able to boil down an idea…and the federal government funded it, and that is what started this whole thing….You have successes, you have failures. But if you’re not doing anything, then you’re going to catch the dumb ones, sure, but you’re not going to catch the smart ones.”
Reach Out to Other Departments: To get this up and running, you don’t have to do it alone,” Officer Shots explained. “You don’t have to build the blueprint anymore. It’s out there, you just need to reach out to the right people to get an idea.”
Director Powers recommends starting small and building from there. Start with a single UFED then build toward Premium. If you are a smaller department that lacks funding, another option is to partner with other departments. “Go build a regional lab with three or four different entities and split the cost,” she said. “Just get the right people in the right room. I mean, digital intelligence nerds want to talk to each other…. If you get the right people in the right room, then just start moving forward.” Relying on mission partners, like Cellebrite, for advice is also a resource that smaller departments can turn to.
When asked what inspires her to come to work each day, Director Powers responded this way, “Our team can exonerate the innocent, we can convict the guilty, and I never have to put a bulletproof vest on. That’s it for me.”