Mar 10 2007

U.S. computer lab to hit crime

Birmingham News

By MIKE CASON

When Randy Hillman saw an explosion in criminal cases that could turn on computer evidence, he realized more investigators and prosecutors needed to know how to use that evidence.

But the executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association found there wasn't much training offered.

"Nobody made it their daily mission to train people on computer forensics," Hillman said. He and his staff decided to change that.

A series of phone calls and meetings over the past year led to Friday's official announcement of the National Computer Forensics Institute, to be built in the Hoover Public Safety Center off Valleydale Road.

U.S. Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, Gov. Bob Riley, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus joined Hillman as speakers at the event in Hoover.

U.S. Secret Service agents will use the 33,000-square-foot institute to train about 1,000 police officers, investigators, prosecutors, judges and private-sector specialists each year, officials said. The center will be jointly run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

Chertoff said the center will allow Homeland Security to offer more computer forensic training than ever to state and local law enforcement. It began offering some training in 2004.

"This institute is going to expand the opportunity to get them the training they need to do their jobs in the 21st century," Chertoff said.

Hillman said he realized the need for more computer forensic training after the District Attorneys Association, with help from an appropriation from U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, opened computer forensic labs in Huntsville, Montgomery and Baldwin County last year.

"We were making tons of cases," Hillman said. "We realize there's no way we can keep up with the few personnel we've got. We start looking around for a place to train our people, and there was nowhere."

Seeking help in DC:

Hillman took his idea for a training facility to Washington and met with officials from Homeland Security and the Secret Service. Bachus said the federal agencies were interested in a national center but didn't have a suitable facility or construction money.

Hillman later met with Sessions, Bachus and Riley.

Bachus had a strong interest, in part, because of his position as former chair and current ranking Republican member of the House Banking Committee.

"The financial sector is getting killed by this stuff," Hillman said, referring to identity theft and related crimes committed by computer hackers.

Bachus said computers, cell phones and other digital equipment offer vast potential for investigators and prosecutors. The digital evidence is harder to impeach than oral testimony but works only if prosecutors and investigators have the training to extract, analyze and preserve it.

"We have all kinds of data, but we're not able to move it into the courtroom because we don't have the training," Bachus said.

After meeting with Hillman, Bachus remembered that the city of Hoover was looking for tenants at the Public Safety Center, a massive former warehouse the city bought a few years ago. He called Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos.

"He put me in touch with Randy (Hillman), and the rest is history," Petelos said. The city agreed to donate space in the Public Safety Center rent-free for six years, partly because of the money trainees will spend at Hoover hotels, restaurants and stores, Petelos said.

Magnet for specialists:

Riley committed $3 million in state funds to build the high-tech classrooms, computer forensic lab and other facilities.

"What you're going to see is a place that will bring computer specialists, the best from all over the world, here to Birmingham," Riley said.

The Shelby County Commission will pay for the architectural fees, which Hillman said will be about $250,000.

Construction of the facility is expected to begin next month and be completed by January. But some training in the building will begin in July.

Homeland Security will spend about $9 million annually to pay instructors and cover trainees' expenses. Hillman said it's important that training be offered at no cost to local law enforcement.