BLOOMINGTON -- Bloomington Detective Mike Fazio remembers a former police chief and his thoughts about the prospects of technology in law enforcement.
"I remember him saying that we don't need computers and computers would never be a major part of law enforcement in Bloomington," said Fazio, a 28-year department veteran.
Today, more than 300 million computers are threaded into U.S. life, available at home, work, public places and on most cell phones.
The BPD Cyber Crime Unit started in late 2004 with a single computer and a laptop. But even within the department, its use was unclear until it became key in a 2008 case that hit far too close to home.
"The interesting thing ... is that up until then, the department didn't understand what we were doing with digital forensics," Fazio said. "It's difficult to demonstrate what we do or explain the benefits. Digital forensics is basically a new frontier, and the Bloomington Police Department had no idea that technology like this was even possible.
It was this case that sealed the unit's existence in the department."
In that case, the cyber unit dug into a family computer and reconstructed pornographic Web pages and pictures depicting police raping women. Those images, Fazio said, played a big part in gaining a serial-rape conviction against then-Sgt. Jeff Pelo.
Pelo raped four women between 2002 and 2005. Fazio said Pelo would commit the crimes, and then come to work as shift supervisor investigating the crimes.
"He was very good at cleaning out his active computer of any evidence, but after multiple search warrants, we came upon an abandoned computer at his home," Fazio said.
Last year, Fazio said the department started using a cutting-edge technique that uses online database information. The department can identify people who trade child pornography over the Internet, and search warrants can be issued based on that. Once confronted with such evidence, the offenders often admit guilt, Fazio said.
He estimates that about 80 percent of investigations now involve digital forensics work.
The digital forensics lab at Normal Police Department is smaller than at BPD, but allows some digital forensics, said Lt. Dave Warner, who manages the lab.
The labs are expensive, with specialized equipment and software, yet it's important police stay committed to this type of investigating, he added. Agencies should have a digital specialist but provide basic training to officers, who collect evidence at the scene.
"They have to be aware what's available and how to get it out, of say, a cell phone," he said.
One challenge is fast-changing technology, said Warner.
"There's a thing called Moore's Law which basically indicates that technology doubles every six to eight months," Fazio said. "For instance, you buy a cell phone and a year from now, it's almost obsolete because of new technology. And for police departments that don't keep up with digital forensics, they eventually will run into a problem."
The McLean County Sheriff's Department can handle cellphone retrievals, and has digital forensics hardware for computers. But its officer trained in that area recently retired, said Lt. Jon Sandage. Illinois State University doesn't have a developed cyber crime lab. Both departments have officers trained in retrieving data from cellphones, though.
"It was a big part of the (Johnny) Turnpaugh case," said McLean County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Elston. In that 2009 murder, Turnpaugh's assailant was convicted, in part, with evidence obtained from his cellphone.
When more complicated cases come up, area agencies turn to Bloomington, Illinois State Police or the FBI.
ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff recalled a suspected child pornography case involving a Milner Library patron. There, his department sought assistance.
Last year, Bloomington was one of eight agencies in Illinois to share a $496,732 grant to continue or strengthen the fight against sexual predators through digital forensics.
Participating agencies -- departments from Champaign, Decatur, Mattoon, Moline, Peoria, Quincy and Peoria County -- received equipment and training.
The BPD unit is a member of the Central Illinois Cyber Crime Unit, headquartered in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Peoria. Three Bloomington detectives are assigned to the 14-county Peoria office (Springfield division) of the U.S. Secret Service, which falls under the Cyber Crime Task Force based in Chicago.