Burlington Police Department and handle any case a sworn officer would work on.
"They do everything," Schirling said. "Because they're under law enforcement supervision and they're in law enforcement space, there are no restrictions on the kinds of things they can work on. All the analysis is done here in government space."
The cases investigated by the Champlain College faculty members vary from homicide, financial crimes and larceny to child pornography and child exploitation, two major areas of concern for investigators.
Kessler carved out a niche for himself as one of the few investigators in the state who can analyze a cell phone for its contents. Most of the cases that come through the Burlington Police Department involving cell phones wind up in Kessler's lap.
Few courses exist on cell-phone data analysis, and Kessler took one of the first - offered last year by SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. The lack of training and the difficulty in analyzing cell phones combine to make the work a dicey proposition.
"The interfaces from the phones to the computer are all different," Kessler explained. "All of the phone models are different so you need different software. It's a little more of an art than a science, and you can't always get the stuff to work. It's like rolling dice when you're examining phones."
Sometimes investigators get a search warrant first before opening up the phone, then go through the phone's various menus and collect information that way. It's not necessarily the best way to get information out of a phone, Kessler said.
"In fact, you miss information that way," he explained. "There is a fair amount of information you [can] get off a phone if you're going through the data port that you can't get if you just open it up, press the keys and go through the menu."
Dissecting a computer for evidence may be more straightforward than analyzing a phone, but there are still many nuances to learn, Schirling said, which is why it's helpful to assemble intelligent minds.
"If somebody does a [Macintosh] exam specific to a fraud case and they learn a few nuances from doing that case, they can bring that knowledge to the table for other investigators the next time there's one of those exams. Not everybody has to become a specialist in every kind of computer application."
Not everybody could become a specialist because there's so much to learn, Schirling added. "There are myriad hardware and software combinations, potentially millions of combinations, and just having a couple of people working on [forensics] makes it difficult to get that broad base of knowledge. We're building a bigger base of knowledge and experience by having more people involved."
A Critical Need
That knowledge is also being fed online to future forensics examiners. All CDF program courses are offered online, and it's becoming a popular way to get the degree. Kessler said of the estimated 160 undergraduate students involved in the major, 90 take the courses online.
Kessler said he's hard pressed to say that the online course works better or worse for the student than being present in a classroom.
"Online works well for an adult, motivated, disciplined learner," he said, noting that online students log on, download a PDF file for lecture notes, then use other links to see slides and hear an instructor.
"There's homework, where we have them using a lot of demo software and freeware, shareware, which is the exact same thing we're doing in our live classes," Kessler said, "and we give them assignments based on those demos."
Students get an education that, it is hoped, will alleviate a growing national problem. "We could [confiscate] a computer from every crime scene, but we don't have anywhere near the capacity to deal with it," he said. "It's a critical national need that needs to be filled."