Law enforcement investigators everywhere suffer from too few resources to deal with the variety of computer crimes being committed and the amount of digital evidence on computers and cell phones.
One police agency is getting help from the local college. The college, in turn, parlayed the relationship into a training program for future forensic examiners, an area where law enforcement desperately needs help.
Champlain College, located in Burlington, Vt., offers a bachelor's degree program in computer and digital forensics, including an online degree option. In addition, two faculty members divide their time between the college and the Burlington Police Department, where they work as forensic examiners.
It's a symbiotic relationship in which both entities benefit. The college gains from the real-life experiences of the two faculty members/forensic examiners, and the Police Department increases its capacity to examine digital evidence.
"It's a creative and innovative partnership that we think is really valuable," said Mike Schirling, deputy chief of the Burlington Police Department. "It certainly bolsters our capacity to perform computer forensics. Just having folks who aren't distracted by other things, like investigations as our sworn folks have to do, is great."
Schirling said without the partnership, Burlington police investigators would spend more time finding forensic evidence, which essentially slows down investigations.
"There would be a longer backlog. Right now our backlogs are measured only in weeks, whereas in most of the country, they're measured in months and sometimes years. The more folks we can have working on forensics the better off we are because they can bring more specialized knowledge to the table."
The proliferation of digital devices exponentially increased investigators' workload, Schirling said, especially over the last decade.
"Police departments have difficulty handling the challenge posed by digital forensics in cyber-crime because we're no longer policing, in our case, a community of 680,000 in Vermont. It's now 1.2 billion," he said. "That's a lot of people."
A Quick Ascent
The program started with a couple of classes in 2002 that promptly filled with students, and quickly swelled into a full-fledged, Computer and Digital Forensics (CDF) degree program in the fall of 2003. By the following spring, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) had already touted the CDF degree program as a model undergraduate curriculum for computer forensics.
The NIJ put its money where its mouth was by awarding Champlain College $185,000 in grant money to further develop the CDF program. That recognition, and the continued development of the program, helped the department land a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2004.
That allowed Gary Kessler, associate professor and program director of the college's Computer Networking, and Computer and Digital Forensics majors, to hire two new faculty members and establish an online training program. In addition, the grant money helped the college create the Champlain College Center for Digital Investigation in 2006, which was chartered to assist law enforcement agencies in Vermont and throughout the nation in computer forensics and other digital investigations.
It's natural in a world where digital devices are mainstream because almost any crime can be traced to a digital device in some way.
"Computers are increasingly the target, the instrument or the record keeper of criminal activity," Kessler said. "Now, of course, with mobile devices such as PDAs, cell phones and cameras, increasingly there is information of value to an investigation found on one of those devices.
"Kick down the door to arrest someone, and there's probably a computer or cell phone in there," he continued. "If any sort of nexus can be drawn between that device and the activity, you can get probable cause and get your search warrant."
Kessler and the two faculty members physically work at the