Asheville Police Department’s Computer Crimes Unit cracks cyber cases

To keep kids safe, police are doing more than community policing and patrolling streets. Detectives in the Asheville Police Department also patrol the high-tech corridors of online communication. The job falls to APD’s Computer Crimes Unit, which was recently recognized in a regional, multi-agency law enforcement announcement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Perhaps the most high-profile mission of the APD’s Computer Crimes Unit is the investigation of online child pornography, from tracing file sharing of photographs to digging out evidence of child exploitation on hard drives seized by law enforcement. “These are serious cases,” Detective Anthony Johnson says. Asheville City Council acknowledged the seriousness of child pornography investigations by supporting efforts to prosecute those cases through Council’s strategic planning process over the last few years.

Taking on cyber cases requires not only technological knowhow, but also the ability to conduct undercover operations online. Johnson’s work in computer forensics factored heavily into the prosecution of the case United States v. Berrell, in which a 29-year old music minister in Asheville pled guilty earlier this year to producing child pornography.

But any case that involves confiscated computers, cell phones or surveillance video is likely to enlist the assistance of the unit, from drug busts to white-collar crime. Operating under search warrants, Det. Johnson and Det. Ricardo Martinez are able to dig out evidence from hard drives and cell phone call lists. Newly installed equipment also allows them to enhance surveillance photos and video, pulling out details that aid investigators with cases.

The push for the establishment of the Computer Crimes Unit began more than five years ago, Johnson says, when the APD still had to ship computers to state agencies in order to retrieve evidence. Now, the unit has state-of-the-art equipment paid for largely by money seized in drug cases.

“We get calls from a lot of agencies that aren’t as fortunate as we are to have this kind of equipment and training,” Johnson says.

With cyber criminals consistently getting more technologically advanced, the detectives have to constantly upgrade their training. State and federal organizations like the National White Collar Crime Center and the Internet Crimes Against Children provide cutting edge training, and multi-state networks and databases help track cyber criminals across the country.

One such network was at the heart of the Aug. 2 announcement by Anne M. Tompkins, United States Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. In the press conference, held in tandem with an announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder, Tompkins highlighted a national strategy to combat child exploitation. The program includes a national database that allows individual departments to easily compare cases and share information.

“Any time we can bring this into the spotlight, its a good thing” Johnson says.

Parents can help prevent child exploitation and online predators by making and enforcing their own rules at home, Johnson says. That includes keeping watch over what and who your children are interacting with online.

Det. Johnson’s suggestions for safe internet use include:

• Don’t let children keep computers in their bedrooms. Opt instead for common rooms in the house.

• Don’t allow private passwords.

• Insist that your children show you their social media activity on a regular basis.

• Install software that allows you to see your child’s online activity.

“A lot of it is just paying attention,” Johnson says. “You may feel like you are intruding, but when you can see what is going on online, it’s worth it.”