Kingston Police e-crimes cop a one-man force – but he needs help

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“If you have a phone that’s been smashed, broken, shot, drowned, or whatever,” says Kingston Police Constable John Theriault, he will find a way to fix it, get to the data within, and use it to put criminals away. 

The Kingston Police Services Board heard at its Thursday, Apr. 18, 2024, meeting that Theriault is the one-man e-crimes unit for the Kingston Police. His excellent track record notwithstanding, he told the board he needs help. The software and hardware he requires and uses are ever-changing, just like the systems used by criminals, and he won’t be able to keep up much longer without an increase in staff.

“My unit’s very small; it’s just me,” Theriault said.

Employed with the Edmonton Police Service from 2014 to 2022, Theriault completed more training at the Canadian Police College’s Technological Crime Learning Institute, covering computer forensics, internet evidence, network investigative techniques, and mobile device forensics. He also specializes with Berla iVe, a type of vehicle forensic software that looks at GPS, phone calls, and many other bits of information that can be extracted from vehicles.

The highly technical work is also labour intensive, involving dismantling phones and even entire vehicles to find vital evidence of criminal activity.

The need for Theriault’s particular set of skills is increasing along with the technology: his predecessor worked on 135 phones in 2020, but Theriault handled over 300 in just the last year, for an average of five hours per device. And that number has increased exponentially in the first quarter of 2024, he said.

Theriault told the board he has seen cell phones come in as evidence of everything from shoplifting to homicide. In 2023, he spent “probably over 1,200 hours just performing extractions and analysis on these phones… I have a file right now with well over 20 exhibits, and we’re talking about terabytes of data.”

“I’m an expensive unit. I’m an expensive person,” Theriault laughed. But in reality, he said, that was no joke.

“The training alone, just to get a tech trained up… is over $100,000,” Theriault explained. 

“Just my software, the tools I’m using within my unit… are well over US$60,000. And that’s an annual fee… we pay for these tools yearly. Gone are the days when you paid $15,000 and had that tool for as long as you wanted to use it as many times as you wanted.”

He put this in grim perspective, saying, “So we’re talking about a one-person unit using all these tools, and… I’m almost performing a disservice to an extent because I cannot do more. There is way more work that I could be doing, but I am not able to because I am too busy.”

Theriault said he should also be working on research and development, learning about the newest, most relevant trade secrets.

“Right now, I’m relying on other services and their research and development experts as best I can, because I don’t have the time to do it myself,” he expressed.

This is essential work, Theriault points out. Almost every crime now has some technical component, from identifying who someone has been talking to, to where they have been.

“I personally, [in] my short time, [have] located deceased persons in homicide investigations just based on GPS coordinates located out of cloud extractions, identified theft rings from cars… I’ve located the spots where the vehicles are being kept, stored, and taken apart from one part of a stolen vehicle. It was a Dodge Ram, and I just pulled the GPS coordinates of where the car had been sitting, identified the location, wrote a warrant, and found over 40 cars sitting there… These are stats, and it’s provable.”

“And,” he emphasized, “I guarantee you: if I can get into a phone, I can get you convictions.”

At the end of the presentation, the board was clearly impressed by the officer’s work. Board member Dr. Christian Leuprecht said, “The thought that resonated certainly with me was that not every crime is a cybercrime, but every crime is a cyber-enabled crime.”

He asked Theriault to “articulate for the board more explicitly: what are the consequences for Kingston for public safety… if there are no additional resources in terms of the work that you do?”

Theriault was blunt: “We’re at a breaking point, in my opinion. Things are going to be overlooked; things are going to be missed. We’re talking about important things that would, as mentioned, identify suspects… I don’t want to whine, I don’t want to come across as doing that — but  we could do a lot more with additional staffing.”

“I am producing reports for investigators who have never had any tech training, and… they’re struggling to go through it,” he continued. “But I can’t assist them… We’re doing a disservice.”

Chief of Police Scott Fraser commented on Theriault’s points, “I think it is really important to understand how technology has changed over the years. Where it used to be the odd person who had a cell phone… everyone now has a phone, everyone has a video game, and now even drones… Cases are going to be dismissed if we don’t have the evidence.” 

“We certainly have a plan coming forward to the board to assist in this regard,” Chief Fraser said, but with no further details.

“It’s something I think many places have underestimated, and underestimated the capability [of criminals]. As I always say, I’m a police officer for a reason; I’m not a tech guru or expert. And the people who are… the criminal element know that technology works to their advantage. So we must be there to counter it.”

The Kingston Police Services Board meets regularly on the third Thursday of each month, commencing at 12 noon in the William Hackett Boardroom at Kingston Police Headquarters, located at 705 Division Street.

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