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November 2008
Crime Time
By Thom Callahan

     Most readers have seen at least one of the CSI programs so popular on prime time. A crime takes place and crime scene investigators work diligently using high-tech gadgetry to solve it.

     Off screen, what the viewer may not know, is that like methods of investigative work are being played out in real life at the American Academy of Applied Forensics (AAAF), part of the Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) North Campus.

     Here, workers from law enforcement, the government, as well as the private sector hone their crime-solving skills in general forensics and digital evidence to sort through potential evidence left behind by criminals. And they do so using impressive, state-of-the-art equipment and a 2,000-square-foot mock crime lab.

     Simply put, the American Academy of Applied Forensics was implemented to serve victims of crime says Lili Johnson, the associate dean of CPCC’s North Campus who heads AAAF.

     “There’s not a lab this big that has the equipment we have for digital forensics,” brags Johnson.

     TV viewers only see the end result of a CSI’s schooling. At AAAF, the curriculum bolsters that training on all levels.

     “What we focus on at the Academy is the science behind the scene,” Johnson declares. “You need to understand at an organic level what the software is doing when you hit the button and give a command because the CSI effect is real. When defense attorneys cross-examine you, that’s when they’re going to attack, and you need to be sound in your conceptual understanding.”


Background Check

     While law enforcement works hard to thwart criminal activity; criminals are working just as diligently to stay one step ahead.

     “Unfortunately, when someone invents computers, PDAs [personal digital assistants], cell phones and so on ostensibly for positive purposes, somebody’s going to take them and use them for their own purposes, basically unintended and to their own gain,” cites Johnson.

     Johnson holds a doctorate in adult education and a master’s in criminal justice and spent 15 years with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation as a special agent.

     Just as CPCC is a national leader in work force development, AAAF, an entity within the umbrella of public safety training at Central Piedmont is recognized similarly. According to Johnson, obtaining funding to start AAAF was no easy task, and CPCC President Tony Zeiss was, as she attests, “very active in soliciting funds for us.”

     Through Zeiss’s efforts Congressional appropriations for AAAF were secured by former Senators John Edwards and the late Jesse Helms, and Representative Sue Myrick and Mel Watt. Congress appointed the National Institute of Justice to oversee AAAF’s planning and development.

     Dale Callan, AAAF’s program developer, acknowledges the academy follows the principles of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

     “But we’ve developed our own courses, roughly 70,” Callan says. “Our facility is top-notch; we bring in some of the best instructors in the country.”

     Callan worked 29 years as a U.S. Postal Inspector with a specialty in identity theft crimes and firearms training.

     Johnson expounds on the need for AAAF: “In law enforcement, most of the time we’re reacting to what the criminal element does. If people didn’t kill people, we wouldn’t have to do homicide investigations. Or if people didn’t use computers to commit fraud or find children to abuse, well, you get the picture.”

     By all indications cyber crimes, those involved with the Internet, are on the increase. That includes more cyber crimes against children as well as “phishing,” when criminals via e-mail pose as legitimate enterprises to scam users to reveal personal information.

     Johnson explains: “Computers can be the victim, the instrumentality or the storage place for information about crimes. And we’re vulnerable because we’re so dependent on computers as a society.”

     “Law enforcement has to have triage,” Johnson confirms. “Police typically address first what they get most complaints about, and cyber crime to a large degree is invisible. People don’t know their identity is being stolen or if a pedophile is online looking for children.”

     Charlotte is fortunate to have the AAAF, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department which has its own forensic laboratory. Smaller locales may not have the manpower, funding or training to tackle or analyze particular evidence, relying instead on the State Bureau of Investigation.

     “In a smaller town a police chief may ask, ‘Do I put a traffic officer out or send an officer to computer forensic school?’” Johnson illustrates.


A Lesson in Crime

     Drawing from many different other states in addition to the Carolinas, about 600 students pass through the AAAF annually, with completion certificates awarded per class.

     “I don’t know how many forensic academies there are, but we’re certainly unique in the Southeast,” declares Callan. “There aren’t many places where you can get this specialized training. Local law enforcement is very lucky for the variety of training it gets at CPCC.”

     About 98 percent of AAAF students are comprised of law enforcement personnel, Callan says.

     A layman may take courses such as computer forensics but would need to be backed by an agency to train in more sensitive classes. Callan points out that advanced forensic work includes courses in dismantling hard drives, cracking passwords and encryption.

     “We don’t want to be educating potential criminals, so we have to be discerning,” Johnson asserts. “So if you walked in off the street, we’d have a few questions for you.”

Johnson adds: “In keeping with the spirit of community colleges, one of our values is accessibility, but by the same token our goal is to enhance public safety.”

     General forensics training includes basic shooting reconstruction, fingerprint comparison, and sexual assault and evidence collection. Digital evidence tracks introduction to cybercrimes, cell phone forensics and financial terrorism, among other topics.

     Online classes can be taken for concepts, but students must demonstrate skills, says Johnson.

     “For example, they have to come to the lab, take a computer hard drive, attach and copy it, use our specialized software and find what’s been hidden or deleted. So if an attorney who’s smart traces an officer’s training, we can say with integrity, ‘Yes, I saw him do that.’”

     With people spending more and more time online, AAAF offers an online safety class, but the cost to a layman is considerably higher than a contract rate for law enforcement. Callan points out that folks can take advantage of classes police offer through organizations. He also encourages folks to use anti-virus programs, firewalls and avoid phishing.

     “We’re not involved with Internet security; that’s for computer scientists,” Johnson advises. “We implement what they come up with during our investigations.”

     Johnson echoes sage advice about using a cross-cut shredder for personal documents, as criminals do rummage through garbage, and never giving personal information on the phone.

     Realizing forensic costs in general can be prohibitive, Johnson says AAAF teaches “the high-and-low tech way.” The computer forensics lab at AAAF has 17 computers, and obviously not every client will have as many or with such high-end software.

     “You don’t have to spend $1,200 on a machine. You can make yourself one of these,” Johnson explains. “They can come here and see the latest and greatest, or we can teach them the basics and science to take another computer and make the same thing.”

AAAF also provides community outreach with its annual Forensics Summer Kamp for children in grades 7 to 12 so they can dabble   in forensics.


On the Scene

     Two vehicles rest in a grassy field. A dreary, drizzly September rain shrouds an already ominous scene; the vehicles are riddled with bullet holes, windows shattered.

Callan says, “The instructor will teach the student to understand and find the caliber of the round, the trajectory and angle using a laser and protractor.”

     Not for the squeamish but during the Flies, Foliage and Features class, a dead pig buried in a cage will be unearthed to determine the length of decomposition indicated by insects and maggots.

     The labs within the academy, which houses a mock courtroom, enable even more hands-on opportunities for crime scene processing.

     In the forensic science lab, a shoe tread mold is being made in Biofoam, and cast with dental stone and water.

     “They also use electrostatic dust lifter, so when there’s dust on the floor they learn how to take a print, which would be invisible, and make a mold,” Callan offers.

     Callan produces photographs of blood stains on a floor that have been wiped away with bleach but revealed with a bluish glow by the chemical Bluestar.

     Blood spatter seems to be the catch phrase for CSIs and AAAF addresses that in another lab. Large sheets of white paper drop down behind dummies that have been squirted, dropped or splattered with fake blood.

     “Was a knife used? Did it cut this way? Was the victim turning?” Callan asks. Law enforcement students will observe and do practical exercises to understand these concepts.

     In someone’s “home” there’s been two murders—a “body” in bed, another sprawled in the living room. Yellow numbered markers identify furniture, personal effects and shell casings that litter the scene. All will be photographed, processed.

     A digital evidence segment teaches students how to dismantle and reassemble a computer hard drive in a hardware fundamentals class.

     “A lot of people don’t realize that almost 80 percent of almost any crime has some kind of digital evidence,” Callan observes. “With a homicide, was there a cell phone on the victim or was a call made before the crime?”

     Callan pauses: “We had an assistant special agent-in-charge (SAC) with the U.S. Secret Service and an FBI SAC in Charlotte who came through and said, ‘This is tremendous. Nobody’s ever seen a lab like this.’ I think there is a stereotype with other agencies who think, ‘Okay, this is a community college, what can I learn?’”

     Stereotypes aside, AAAF’s next step, Johnson plans, is to have software capability to produce and share intelligence with other agencies.

     “A criticism of the FBI after 9-11 was they had all this information but they didn’t share it.”

     Johnson asserts. “So the data mining investigators do with whatever digital evidence they have, that data needs to be transformed into intelligence and sent to where it can be accessed by people working on other crimes in locations around the world.”

     In the relatively short seven years since AAAF’s founding, its reputation as well as its student enrollment has grown substantially. AAAF recently was given a Congressional appropriation of $500,000 to enhance its digital evidence program.

     Johnson’s gives her take on the CSI shows. “They do good science, use accurate terms, and a lot of things you see on the sets we have in our laboratory,” Johnson concedes. “But they bend the truth a little bit, with DNA and suspect prints at every scene. And in real life you don’t have one person go to the scene, lift a print, take it to the lab—that’s three different jobs, depending on the agency.”


Thom Callahan is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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