WASHINGTON — For months, the cellphones of a Charles County coach charged with sexually assaulting boys sat waiting. For months, no one saw the videos or images that depict the abuse at his home and in a classroom. And for months the former teaching assistant was free.
Investigators don’t know whether any more children might have fallen prey between the time the phones were seized in December and Carlos Bell’s arrest on June 30 for assault and child pornography charges.
But due to a backlog of work at a Maryland State Police computer forensic lab, the monthslong wait is not unusual, officials said.
“It takes 8 months on any case when you’re talking about computers. You have, in a new day and age, computers and other devices are used all the time in crime, and we have not upgraded the forensics unit as far as personnel and resources,” said Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony Covington.
County officials didn’t know what they would find on those cellphones when they were submitted to the state police lab. But even if they did, it would not have jumped the Bell case to the front of the line, Covington said.
“Sure we wish [the timing] would be better. But this is not TV,” Covington said earlier this month during a news conference announcing the charges against Bell. “Unfortunately, the time frame is what it is.”
So far, 10 victims have been identified through the cellphone images and video even as police continue to investigate.
The explosion of smartphones and apps, and the growing size of computer hard drives has created a glut of evidence for investigators in recent years. But all of that data is swamping the computer forensic units at the Maryland State Police and other local police departments charged with sorting through the files to find evidence related to criminal investigations, traffic crashes and sentencings.
The Maryland State Police crime unit that analyzes computer drives, cellphones, video and other digital evidence has a backlog of about 10 months, said Det. Sgt. John Linton, assistant commander of the technical investigations section.
The four examiners who work with Linton handle cases from agencies across the state, taking in about 15 new cases a month, Linton said.
But each case could represent days, but more likely weeks, of work to scan apps, deleted files, memory, and possibly terabytes of chats, texts, emails and other records found on hard drives, cellphones and other devices.
The unit prioritizes homicide, rape or cases involving children who are in immediate danger — for example, if a man sets up an in-person meeting hoping to have sex with a young victim after grooming them through messaging apps, Linton said.
The remaining cases are handled in the order they arrive to his team, which focuses on cases involving child exploitation.
During all of 2016, the unit handled 130 cases. But they’re on pace to hit 180 cases this year — a nearly 40 percent increase.
From 2012 through 2016, the number of cases submitted more than doubled, and the number of items analyzed roughly doubled, according to state police figures.
But the number of cases and items doesn’t reflect that true workload as hard drives have also rapidly increased in capacity. Eight gigabytes once was considered a large computer hard drive — but now computers are commonly sold with hard drives that hold 1 terabyte worth of data — almost 1,000 times the storage capacity.
A 1-terabyte hard drive could hold a bit more than 200 DVDs worth of data, or hundreds of thousands of images, Linton said.
“It gets to a point where everyone is working as diligently as they can, but when the cases coming in numerically overwhelm that, you’re going to create a backlog,” Linton said.
More manpower is the only way to address the 10-month backlog, Linton said.
Baltimore Sen. Delores Kelley, who sits on the justice committee that oversees the state police, called it a problem to wait months for evidence to come back from the crime lab.
A state law passed last year could eventually provide some help.
Known as Alicia’s Law, the measure requires a minimum $2 million annual contribution into a fund that will support the work of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which is supported in part by Linton’s unit. The money is intended to pay for staffing and equipment of the unit and would also provide grants to other police departments in the state performing similar computer crimes work.
Linton hopes the money can be used for training and new equipment.
However, the cash won’t begin flowing until 2018.
Rapid pace of tech evolution swamps area police evidence labs
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties both are seeing a similar explosion in the amount of digital evidence seized and collected for analysis.
In Prince George’s County, the workload peaked in 2014, when the police department’s computer lab examined more than 37,000 gigabytes of data. That year, the unit worked on a child pornography case that involved 350 different devices that took the team four months to comb through, said Sgt. Michael Daily, who supervises the computer forensics and video analysis unit.
So far this year, the unit has scrutinized more than 2,100 gigabytes of data and taken on 14 new cases. It has a backlog of about 10 cases, Daily said.
Daily’s lab typically has four people working through cases. But the unit is down to just one analyst after two others recently received promotions and a third retired. He’s in the process of restaffing.
In addition to child pornography, the types of cases handled by the lab range from drug sales to gun sales, breaking-and-entering cases and even crash investigations, Daily said.
“We definitely have to look at evidence differently. Almost everything has a digital component to it,” Daily said.
And in some cases, computer and digital records is the only evidence that investigators can offer to prosecutors.
While investigating the 2014 killing of Cecil Brown in Takoma Park, Montgomery County police relied heavily on cellphone tower data, text messages and other digital evidence, said Det. Sgt. Michael Yu, who runs the electronic crimes unit for the department.
In Montgomery County, the number of drives and devices reviewed has skyrocketed from 341 analyzed in 2010 to 1,528 last year. And the amount of data scrutinized has increased an average 50 percent each year since 2010, according to data provided by the county police department.
This year, the county is on pace to match the caseload from 2016, police said.
Five people work in the electronic crimes unit plus another four staff members are available to help, said Yu.
Despite a bigger staff than the state police or Prince George’s County, the now ubiquitous use of smartphones — even by children and older generations of consumers — has forced the department to change the way it conducts investigations. Now phones and computer data from victims might be needed, not just a suspect’s, Yu said.
“Whether there’s anything on there that’s relevant, we don’t know until we look. But that increased our workload tremendously,” Yu said.