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SPD takes on high tech crime

The Federal Bureau of Investigations describes technology as a "Swiss Army knife" for criminals - versatile and multi-faceted in its usefulness in perpetrating crime.

For law enforcement, technology is proving to be among the top challenges when it comes to stopping a broad spectrum of crimes including theft, violence, child exploitation, drug dealing, identity theft and financial crimes among others.

A newly forming task force led by the Superior Police Department is taking on that challenge in the Twin Ports and greater St. Louis and Douglas counties. The Forensic Technology Task Force aims to use technology and data stored by criminals to fight crime.

While Superior has long worked to combat crimes committed using technology, dedicating the resources full-time has proven difficult, until now. A federal appropriation secured by U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, is helping the city's police department launch the regional task force to address technology and crime. The task force includes the Duluth Police Department, and Douglas and St. Louis counties sheriff's departments.

"We want to have the [forensic technology] task force in place by spring," said Superior Police Chief Floyd Peters. "It will allow us to continue the important work we're doing to process evidence and be self-sufficient ... helping other departments in our area so we can be responsive to crime victims in a much quicker time. More importantly, it will allow us to be proactive in the area of Internet crimes against children."

Superior's police department has had a number of successes in cracking computer and other technology-related crimes that have resulted in convictions and federal prison sentences for sex offenders who targeted children for sexual exploitation.

"We believe so strongly that we need to be proactive in pursuing perpetrators of child exploitation and child pornography, because there's a startling statistic - a very high percentage - that if they are engaged in that kind of criminal conduct, they are most probably assaulting and abusing children."

Peters said if the department doesn't work to crack those cases, officers aren't protecting those children.

The Superior Police Department has had an officer trained in computer forensics since 2002. Capabilities include cell phones, cameras and other devices that store data.

Two officers are trained for the work now - Patrol Sgt. Nicolas Alexander and Detective Tom Champaigne - but the work they do today in computer forensics is limited by other responsibilities for the department.

The $540,000 grant will fund the program for three years, during which time the city will seek additional funding sources to keep the task force viable.

Peters said he plans to promote one officer to sergeant and hire another patrol officer to relieve Alexander of his responsibilities as a night patrol supervisor. Alexander will head the task force.

"Forensic technology, processing our own evidence, doing it quick; we can't wait 18 months to two years to get evidence back from our overwhelmed labs in Wisconsin or Minnesota," Peters said.

Peters said the problem isn't going away. In fact, he said, every new device that stores data that hits the market presents new challenges for law enforcement.

However, the task force is only one aspect of using technology to the police department's advantage.

In the next few weeks, the police department is rolling out a new service designed to help the public share their tips with police by text messaging.

People will be able to send the text message to a number that will be forwarded anonymously to police, said Capt. Chad La Lor, who is taking the lead on the project. La Lor said the service isn't designed for emergency calls; however, when people have information about a crime, it is another tool people will be able to contact police.

The same technology will also allow police to send alerts to the public interested in receiving them.

La Lor said training for officers designated to receive the text messages begins next week and the police department hopes to roll out the new capability by early February.

"I think every law enforcement agency should be involved in planning proactive work like this," Peters said. "It's the right thing to do. It's the right time to do it. And thanks to Congressman Obey and his staff for catching a vision and the passion we have for it, it's going to become a reality."

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