Sheriff’s Office adds mobile digital forensic lab

The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office has a new vehicle that allows investigators to download photos, videos, texts, emails, calendar entries and other data and to record interviews, all at the scene of the crime or when searching for a missing person.

Detective James Schilling and other investigators with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office can use a new mobile digital forensic vehicle to download information from electronic devices at the scene of a crime. Photo by Eric Hagen
Detective James Schilling and other investigators with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office can use a new mobile digital forensic vehicle to download information from electronic devices at the scene of a crime. Photo by Eric Hagen

A donated 20-year-old ambulance from Allina will give the sheriff’s office what it believes to be the first mobile digital forensics vehicle in the state of Minnesota that has the capability to download information from any electronic device.

The sheriff’s office has had the technology to analyze electronic devices for many years. But rather than bringing multiple electronic devices back to the Andover office, they can “bring the lab to them,” said Detective James Schilling.

Cmdr. Brian Podany, of the sheriff office’s Criminal Investigation Division, said 15 to 20 years ago, investigators going to a home maybe had just one computer to look at. With all the laptop computers, cellphones and tablets in the home, there are a lot more devices where information is stored that could be useful to an investigation.

Having this vehicle will be helping for basic “triage” early in an investigation, Schilling said. If multiple people witnessed and recorded a shooting incident, the investigator could ask people if they are willing to part with their phones for a few minutes and download what they need in the van.

If somebody does not want to give up their device and the investigator has enough cause to request a search warrant, he or she can send information to the Anoka County Attorney’s Office remotely from the van and receive the search warrant and print it off in the van.

The day after the mobile digital forensic lab was put into service two weeks ago, and it was first used to download information from cellphones during the Anoka-Hennepin Drug Task Force’s execution of a search warrant in Columbia Heights, according to Podany.

“Our field is changing tremendously. One thing we’ve had to stay on top of is digital forensics,” Podany said. “Electronics is something that has revolutionized our world. I’d say a majority of our cases involve digital forensics.”

The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office believes this is the first mobile digital forensic vehicle for any Minnesota law enforcement agency. Courtesy of Anoka County Sheriff’s Office
The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office believes this is the first mobile digital forensic vehicle for any Minnesota law enforcement agency. Courtesy of Anoka County Sheriff’s Office

Inside the vehicle is a video camera that can record an interview. Podany said state law requires law enforcement interviewing any children to capture it on video. The sheriff’s office records all interviews on videos because it can be powerful evidence for a court trial.

One thing this vehicle does not do is surveillance, Podany said. They cannot tap into phone conversations and there is no video camera outside the vehicle. Custom painting the sheriff’s office logo, name and colors on the exterior of the vehicle was a majority of the $6,000 to $7,000 costs the sheriff’s office put into the vehicle. While adding another cost, Podany said it made sense to make this a visible vehicle to illustrate there is no clandestine purpose.

“If you see an unmarked van driving around, people become leery,” he said.

Podany lives in Anoka County, so budget decisions the sheriff’s office makes ultimately impacts his property taxes. If not for Allina’s donation of an ambulance, which he sees having five to 10 years of remaining use, Podany does not think they would have obtained a vehicle like this. Besides the custom painting on the outside of the vehicle and some cabinet work on the inside, sheriff’s office staff put in a lot of “elbow grease” into the project by gutting out the remaining ambulance gear and putting in the data forensic gear, all of which is equipment the sheriff’s office already owned. Had it bought all new equipment, it could have added another $20,000 to the cost, Podany estimated.

“We have always appreciated our partnership with Allina, but this latest venture truly shows how working together can better meet the needs of our communities,” Sheriff James Stuart said.

This is not the first time Allina has donated an old ambulance to a law enforcement agency.

“Allina has donated ambulances to SWAT teams, dive teams and other law enforcement purposes, but this is the most unique repurposing of one of our rigs that I have ever seen,” said Jeff Czyson, director of operations for Allina.

How this vehicle will be used on each case “will be trial by error,” Schilling said. Collecting a lot of photos and videos from cellphones is the most obvious use. But detectives can use it when looking for a missing person, whether that be a runaway teenager, an elderly person or a special needs person who wandered away from home, someone who was kidnapped or a suspect in a crime.

If Schilling has a cellphone number, he can ask the cellphone provider to do a precision locate search for the phone’s location. If the phone is on, the search is much more precise. If a phone call is made, the cellphone company can tell officers from what tower and antenna the call was made, which then tells the officers which direction to narrow their search.

Instead of going back to the sheriff’s office to coordinate all of this, this “command vehicle,” as Schilling calls it, allows all this work to happen in the field.

“This just speeds up the process,” Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said.

Karlene Apelt, who works for the Anoka County Attorney’s Office, said this vehicle could also be useful when investigating white-collar financial crimes. If officers are investigating somebody with multiple electronic devices in their home or at a business, this will come in handy.

Schilling and Apelt said they would not need to download everything from an electronic device unless they feel it is necessary and they have a search warrant or permission from a witness or potential victim of a crime.

Palumbo said he is a little surprised that no other Minnesota law enforcement agency has a vehicle like this considering all the emphasis on digital forensics. For him, getting information quicker is the key reason this is a good idea.

“I think this is the next step forward in computer forensics,” Palumbo said. “It allows all aspects of the criminal justice system to operate more efficiently with less impact on people.”

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