Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Budget bear takes a bite out of high-tech crime fighting

A regional team of law enforcement specialists that helped crack some high-profile Bay Area crimes by digging into cell phones and computer hard drives shut its doors Friday, another victim of severe state budget cuts that threaten similar teams across the state.

The Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force, which included agencies from Contra Costa, Solano and 11 other counties north to the Oregon border, was among five teams statewide that lost more than 40 percent of their funding in a freeze on public safety grants that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered this month. No new funding was projected for next fiscal year.

The four other teams also face closure without new funding, officials said, including a San Jose task force that pursues identity thieves and high-tech criminals in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and other counties through much of the Bay Area. State programs for gang enforcement, crime prevention and sexual assault also are threatened under a wide range of cuts to public safety grants and proposed funding shifts designed to save the state general fund hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

"It's not a proposal the governor puts forward lightly or takes pleasure in doing," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance. "But that said, in order to close a budget gap of historic proportions, we have to spread spending reductions throughout the state government."

With no money to last the year, Advertisementthe staff of police, prosecutors, investigators and state and federal agents packed up the Napa office this week after eight years. The Contra Costa district attorney's office, Concord and San Pablo police all lent manpower to the task force, which also included the FBI, Secret Service and state Department of Justice.

Among the prominent cases it helped investigate were the Sept. 1 killing of Fairfield City Councilman Matt Garcia; a Diablo Valley College grade-fixing scandal; the hit-and-run death of Moraga chef Gurdeep Kaur in 2005; the murder in 2005 of Pamela Vitale in her Lafayette home by teenager Scott Dyleski; and cases from an online sex sting that Petaluma police ran in 2006 that aired on the popular "To Catch a Predator" TV series, officials said.

The Sacramento-area task force helped in the Laci Peterson probe, said Marin District Attorney Ed Berberian, who oversaw the task force that closed Friday.

"High technology has merged into all aspects of criminal activity. We develop cases these days by going in and analyzing what is on cell phones and PDAs and computers. So much of it is now locked in these little boxes," Berberian said. "This task force provides the key to opening them, and it's gone. It's going to have an effect."

Berberian said the cuts will land hard on smaller agencies that are thin on expertise and equipment. Larger agencies also relied on the task forces for computer forensics and investigations of crimes that cross city and county boundaries. Some of them now have high-tech experts trained through the task force.

The governor hopes to shift funding for some other big-ticket public safety programs — including supplemental funding for local police and juvenile probation — to local pools funded by a $12 rise in the state vehicle license fee, Palmer said. Other grant programs could live on a proposed nickel-a-drink tax increase on beer, wine and spirits, he said.

The high-tech task forces, meanwhile, are scrambling for new funding to save the $12 million-a-year program. Deputy Attorney General Robert Morgester, who helped found the Sacramento-area task force in 1995, said the state does not have its own computer forensics laboratory for cases ranging from identity theft to gang murder to child exploitation.

"If you don't have an officer that understands how to investigate it or recover information off a suspect's computer," he said, "you don't have a case."

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