Federal and state funding makes these teams possible because the money enables task force members to keep their skills sharp as technology evolves. However, the funding to keep specialized forces afloat is increasingly threatened. In early February, California's five task forces learned they lost 40 percent of their funding due to a freeze in government grants ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though state officials passed an 11th hour resolution designating vehicle licensing fund dollars to pay task force costs for five years, the operations of one of the state's teams - the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force - remain suspended until further notice.
"We ceased operations as of February 1," says Ed Berberian, Marin County District Attorney and project director of the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force. The task force relies on state and federal funding for 100 percent of its operations. Local governments could not pick up the tab for expected state and federal declines, so the group had to disband.
This scenario is common for the 100 California agencies in 13 counties that rely on these specialists to process digital evidence. "These are [mostly] small agencies," Berberian says. "They don't have the extra investigative resources to continue these operations."
All agencies relying on task forces face similar fates should teams lose funding. When the Southern California High-Tech Crimes Task Force faced losing its grants, Costa says he was asked what would happen if the money disappeared. "I said over the long haul it means we'll be frozen in 2008 techniques, software and equipment, while the crooks are on the cutting edge. As technology moves ahead, we cannot afford for technology investigators to remain behind."
Bring it local
While task forces offer much assistance to small agencies ill-equipped to perform this work, with technological crimes and digital evidence increasing at tremendous rates, it remains critical for all agencies to prepare in some way, stresses Tom Quilty, president of BD Consulting and Investigations Inc. and treasurer of the International High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA).
"Someday there will be no crime labeled as high tech, it will be just crime," he says. "Technology is becoming an increasingly important part of criminal activity, and agencies need resources and training to deal with it."
Patrol officers most commonly run across cell phones containing a wealth of information, says Harris. He describes a recent California gang shooting where rival gangs rolled into a parking lot and opened fire on each other with automatic weapons. While hundreds of rounds were fired, when police interviewed those involved they claimed they didn't see anything. But when officers confiscated and searched their cell phones, they found photographs, text messages and other information about the shootings. This, he says, is typical of the digital information first responders come across.
Strict budgetary confines prevent many local agencies from training officers to perform this work. It would cost an agency approximately $20,000 to train and properly equip a detective to investigate high-tech crimes and inspect digital evidence. But in small departments, Stone says departments often invest around $3,000 in training and equipment and expect $20,000 worth of performance.
"You can give me a week's worth of auto-theft training and I can investigate auto theft," he says. "But if you assign someone to computer crimes, it's going to take a year to put them through the training."
The need for these skills varies from department to department, creating another concern, as these are perishable skills, adds Costa. "If you're not getting cases that often, you may need to weigh the cost of training versus the number of cases the officer may have," he says.
Finally, the rotating assignment process many agencies follow produces challenges as well. Some agencies rotate officer assignments every few years. It doesn't pay to invest in training someone who leaves for another assignment in a year or two. An agency must commit to keeping high-tech officers assigned to digital crimes once fully trained, says Stone, who originated Wichita PD's computer crimes investigation section with Mike McNown 11 years ago. This department rotates assignments on a regular basis, but not in its computer forensics division.