I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance. – Steve Jobs
Friday, August 12th, 2016 was a landmark day for me. It not only marked my 25th anniversary at the Madison Police Department, but also my final official day there. It also marked the final day in my 31-year law enforcement career. Nearly 18 years of that time was spent in digital forensics. For those of you doing the math, that’s well over half of my career.
First thing in the morning on Monday, August 15th, I drove to the Madison Police Department training center to teach a day-long course on Hactivism investigations. Hactivism, along with so many facets of the investigative and digital forensics work I did for the police department, didn’t even exist when I started in policing. The Internet, along with advances in computing and mobile technology, changed the world during the course of my career.
With new technology evolved new forms of evidence and new ways to commit and investigate crimes. Jurisdiction-less and border-less marketplaces for cyber crime, human trafficking, drug and weapons trade and child exploitation emerged from the ether with few well-targeted initiatives or funding to combat them. Privacy, free speech, and the legal system have not kept up. Crime and policing have changed forever, and vast new areas of responsibility and opportunity have arisen.
For me, digital and mobile forensics have helped me to successfully bridge the gap between public service and the private sector. From the other side of that career-change bridge, I am convinced that what separates successful forensicators and cyber crime investigators from unsuccessful ones is pure perseverance. (Thanks, Steve Jobs!).
If I had not had the advantage of position longevity on my side, it would have been impossible to accomplish what I did. Had I been on a three-, four-, five- or six-year rotation, I would not have been able to accumulate the experience necessary to confidently and successfully approach the vast number of complex, new, and ever-changing problems presented in my casework.
The furious pace of change of technology requires focused and persistent attention to achieve success. The personal commitment required to learn and stay abreast of the skills and concepts needed to stay current is significant. Digital forensics and cyber crime investigation is hard. It can be really rewarding, but it’s really hard. This work is not for the faint of heart.
Of course, police work in general is not for the faint of heart. These days, it can seem to be mostly thankless job and nearly impossible job. The brunt of problems and failures in our society’s systems come to rest directly on the shoulders of a burdened policing system. Mental illness, addiction, poverty, homelessness, overloaded and underfunded court and educational systems, result in intractable problems that the police are expected to resolve quickly, quietly, and peacefully.
Any given shift presents an officer with call after call combinations of barking dogs, loud music, traffic accidents, child and elderly abuse and neglect, sexual assaults, domestic violence, armed robberies, drunk driving, heroin overdoses, fatal crashes, disturbances, bomb threats, speeding, fights, runaways, shootings, simple misunderstandings, stabbings, suicides, civil disputes, homicides, missing people, road rage, shoplifters, weapons offenses, burglaries, or ducks in the roadway. Officers often enter extremely chaotic situations with limited, incomplete, and inaccurate information, which adds to the difficulty. Policing requires quick thinking, problem solving, excellent communication skills, physical agility, patience, compassion, empathy, emotional control, and a sense of humor.
The people I worked with during my 25 years at MPD fit that bill. With very few exceptions, they are among the smartest, most conscientious, caring, compassionate, empathetic, persistent, resilient, and kindest people I have ever known. Politics aside, (because politics tends to skew the truth towards an agenda) they are true public servants.
Modern policing requires a growing set of technical skills. When I started at Madison Police Department in 1991, there were two green-screen computers in the central district patrol area. Today, there are computers all over the place. Mobile Data Terminals, in-squad video systems, computerized radio systems, mobile phones, and the police department’s network. Calls are dispatched electronically. Records and reports are “paperless.” Email and video conferencing systems are primary means of communication. Body-worn video cameras are common. Any call can have a technology element and could require knowledge and skills needed to recognize and properly collect digital evidence. Investigations commonly involve a plethora of data from video systems, computers and cell phones, social media, cell phone providers, phone companies, financial institutions, and other sources.
Technology also brings a high level of instant public scrutiny and to police work. 1991, the year I was hired at MPD, was the year of the Rodney King incident. Analog video captured by a citizen of Los Angeles showing officers’ use of force in a drunk driving arrest led to rioting and looting.
Twenty-five years later, numerous encounters between citizens and police are captured or live streamed and spread instantly and widely across social media. Sometimes the the video is accompanied by misinformation, or shows an incomplete picture of what happens. The video may include a full and accurate accounting of what happened, but public understanding of police use of force is limited and while justified, it just looks bad. Sometimes the use of force captured in the video is, in fact, excessive. Political agenda is often attached, stated with an us-against-them mentality. Sadly, we’ve seen that this can culminate in widespread outrage, protest, and upheaval.
The role technology plays in policing is constantly evolving, and the relationship law enforcement officials have with technology continues to change and adapt along with it.
To say that my career in law enforcement had a huge impact on my life would be an understatement. Looking back on where I’ve been and how it got me to where I am today is a bittersweet but meaningful exercise. Sharing the experience with you, the followers of my blog, is a valuable way to document my transition and help give you some insight into my perspective as I continue forward in my new role as President of Gillware Digital Forensics.