Police throughout the state are turning to high-tech tools to solve crimes
From scouring a child pornographer’s computer hard drive to pulling up invisible fingerprints at a homicide scene or working to identify guns used in a crime, police in Delaware are increasingly using advanced technology to bring criminals to justice.
The Dover Police Department recently calling on a Texas forensic artist to reconstruct the face of an unidentified dead man whose body was discovered in 2012 is one example of how police are using forensic science and other advanced crime-solving technologies.
But it’s hardly the only case in which the latest technology is being used to solve crimes and close investigations.
Delaware’s Child Pornography Task Force, for instance, employed advance computer forensics to help rescue 28 abused children and secure 44 convictions between January 2013 and April 2014.
“I think that’s what keeps us going,” said task force commander Abby Layton. “When we’re having a tough day, we can look back at those kids we know we’ve rescued.”
Saving the innocent
Child abusers and purveyors of child pornography go to elaborate lengths to avoid the wide net cast by the task force, Layton said. Many have experience in covering their tracks, making the task force’s work harder, and yet ultimately more fulfilling.
“There is something so rewarding about our job,” she said. “Every time we make an arrest and conviction, knowing that we’ve protected kids.”
The investigators, backed by years of experience in detective work, team with highly trained computer forensic examiners to either physically taking apart a suspect’s computer or by tracing the accused’s electronic footprints to every corner of the Internet.
For security reasons, Layton could not discuss specifics about what equipment or software are used by the six members of the computer forensics team, nor could she divulge where the task force works.
But she did reveal that it’s almost impossible for a cybercriminal to completely cover his or her tracks.
“A lot of people think that once you delete something, it’s gone. But it’s not,” she said. “It’s amazing what our guys can do. They were the best at what they did before they became forensic examiners, and they couple that with old-fashioned police work. That, with our forensic software is how we find the information.”
Current technology allows investigators to decipher what a computer user has been doing, from tracking every keystroke to learning what websites have been accessed.
“We’ll know what they’ve been doing, what websites they’ve visited,” Layton said, even to the point of knowing who was using a computer at a particular time and then recreating a sequence of events leading up to when a person accesses a certain website.
It is time consuming work, sometimes with months going by between using a search warrant to obtain a computer, laptop or iPad and finishing an investigation.
“True predators make efforts to hide their activities, and we’re using new technology in an ongoing effort to stay one step ahead,” said Jason Miller, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Justice. “It’s not as easy as just opening up a file on a computer. It takes real skill and the special tools to uncover those files on a suspect’s computer.”
Using ballistics to solve crimes
While computer forensics is on the cutting edge of the tools police use to solve crimes, one of the most effective is also one of the oldest methods: ballistics.
The Delaware State Police Forensic Firearms Services Unit works with 26 municipal police departments as well as federal law enforcement agencies, to catch criminals with the aid of the very weapons that have been used to do harm.
Established in November 2006, the two-man FFSU staff examines firearms and other ballistic evidence gathered during criminal investigations.
The FFSU processed more than 3,600 investigations between 2006 and 2012, the last year for which data has been released.
In 2012 alone, the unit analyzed weapons related to 45 murder investigations, as well as another 500 firearms and more than 1,300 cartridge casings, according to the division’s annual report.
Using unique imaging software and equipment, state police are able to obtain high resolution images of spent cartridges, which then are compared to prior cases. In 2012, the FFSU was able to match 170 casings to more than one crime.
“That means if there was a shooting in Wilmington six months ago, and the gun is later used in Dover, we can link the two crimes,” Dover Police Department Detective Larry Simpkiss explained.
The Delaware State Police Crime Lab also works with numerous municipal police departments and federal agencies. According to the division’s 2012 annual report, the lab specializes in analyzing blood alcohol levels, as well as hairs and fibers recovered at crime scenes. The team also calibrates breathalzyer instruments for Delaware police agencies and explosive monitors used by the Delaware National Guard.
The lab’s staff of three forensic chemists was called on 2,360 times to testify in Delaware courts during 2012.
Training and technology
Despite the advances in technology, sometimes the best thing available for solving crimes is the knowledge inside a detective’s head rather than a piece of expensive equipment,.
While the Dover Police Department has its share of crime fighting resources, it also has Simpkiss, a certified crime scene analyst.
Now in his 18th year on the force, Simpkiss said he has attended some of the best training a modern-day law enforcement officer can hope to find.
Key among that training was a 10-week course offered in Tennessee, which included a three-day visit to the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, a so-called “body farm,” where students study how donated human corpses decay under differing weather conditions.
“When they offered the school to me, I seized the opportunity,” Simpkiss said. “It was definitely an eye-opener. Once I got there, I realized just how much behind the Dover Police Department was in how we process criminal scenes and how we were lacking certain equipment we needed to stay up to date with processing crime scenes.
In 2010, the department obtained a $30,000 grant, which it used to set up its very first forensics lab. Today, Simpkiss is a one-man operation using some of the most advanced equipment available.
One simple tool, a handheld xenon lamp, filters light on different wavelengths, revealling chemicals and other residue that otherwise would invisible to the naked eye.
Another is a $12,000 cyanoacrylate fuming cabinet, which brings out fingerprints that can’t be detected using the standard black powder technique. Instead, Simpkiss fills a small tin with superglue and places it in the cabinet, where a hotplate vaporizes the liquid. Mixed with highly humidified air, the fumes attach to any unseen prints, making them visible so they can be photographed and analyzed.
Simpkiss was recognized in 2009 by the International Association for Identification as a certified crime scene analyst, skills he uses to pick over minute details while examining a crime. His expertise allows the lead investigator on a case to thoroughly process a crime scene, a task once left up to the first officers on the scene.
“We talk, and I find out what he’s working on and what kind of crime it is,” he said. “That gives me an idea of what to look for. It’s up to me to locate certain pieces of evidence related to the crime we’re investigating.”
Simpkiss hasn’t done up any statistics on how many more crimes Dover Police are solving since he set up his lab. But he said did say Dover is submitting more evidence and more fingerprints to the State Bureau of Identification than in the past.
“We do more to a piece of evidence now than we ever did before,” he said.