MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – When crime investigations require the collection of digital evidence, the Michigan State Police have dedicated teams statewide to assist in that effort.
In the Upper Peninsula, the MSP Cyber Crimes Unit is based in Marquette. The office is staffed by a team leader, two detective troopers and three digital forensic analysts. They have an affiliate with the Marquette City Police Department and the Michigan Department of Corrections. They also assist more than 50 law enforcement agencies across the Upper Peninsula with all digital evidence investigations.
Detective Sgt. Nichole Dyson leads the unit and shared how they begin many of their cases.
“Anything that comes through these websites or social media platforms and is flagged as potentially illegal or abusive content is then sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They’re conducting a preliminary investigation to determine where it’s going. As soon as they realize which state is involved, because the task force operates nationwide. They then send it to the responsible federal state. If it’s in Michigan, it’s sent to the Lansing office, where a team of analysts goes through it, then it’s sent to the appropriate office or offices statewide,” Dyson said.
Dyson’s team in the 8th Precinct is part of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force. The tips they receive will help launch proactive investigations. While they don’t rigorously investigate allegations of child sexually abusive material, these are the main cases the Cybercrime Unit takes on.
“In the last six months to a year we have seen an increase cases of sextortion where online predators try to get a kid to chat with them, then maybe get them to send explicit pictures, then they will take advantage of them in one way or another, be it for money or more photos of them get,” Dyson said.
Detective Trooper Evan Fezatt is one of two investigators based out of Marquette covering the UP. His daily activities include investigating proactive cases and conducting investigations related to child exploitation.
“We review cases that come in through social media and online sources related to child exploitation,” Fezatt said.
While some investigations can last only a few hours, others can stretch for months, depending on the severity of the circumstances.
“I keep going to different training sessions. The information is continuously updated. I’m still learning every day and refer to my sergeant and partners for guidance on how to be more efficient,” Fezatt said. “There is always a new task. It spurs me on to come back and learn the new role I have as well as learn the job itself. The ability to help a child in need is tremendous.”
Part of what makes his position unique is bridging the gap between physical and digital policing.
“We’re starting to issue search warrants against electronics service providers. We can also issue search warrants for homes. It’s good to see the case from the beginning where it’s all information until the arrest. Part of that position is that you still have the excitement of doing policing and doing the background IT work to get where you are,” Fezatt said.
Ryan Frazier is one of two full-time digital forensic scientists and a civilian member of the Cyber Crimes Unit.
“You go in expecting, ‘I’ll find this,’ or ‘We think it’ll be on this device.’ Sometimes it isn’t there and there are many reasons why it wouldn’t be there. Sometimes we seize a lot of devices, 10 to 15 devices, and it takes you seven, eight, nine devices to maybe finally get hold of a suspicious piece of evidence. It’s very demoralizing to go through and find nothing when you know there is evidence or that we have evidence of malicious activity. It can be difficult not to find it,” Frazier said.
Unit members say the job can take a mental toll, but they are supported and can rely on one another to help offset the stress of the job.
“To be able to save a child is great, but when do you remember that a child was also exploited? As soon as an image is published on the internet, you don’t get it back. As soon as an image of these minors and children is posted on the internet, they are broadcast and shared repeatedly,” Dyson said.
“The computer crime department at MSP takes really good care of us. They make sure we have the Office of Behavioral Research with psychologists that we have as a point of contact.” She continued, “We call it team building and procrastination to be able to go out and get things done as a team. We go out to eat, we do an escape room, something fun like that. if you have a day If one of my teammates looks at me and says, “I have to go,” I say just go. We have what is called shared trauma when someone has a fight day. We’re going to sit down as a team and take some of that trauma away from them. But it is very important that you work together. We have an open line of communication. You get very close to the people you work with because you share very similar experiences.”
It’s a sense of support that Frazier echoed.
“It’s something we do together,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a one-man job that we shoulder all the burden. We are part of a federal working group. … It has to be said that other people are doing the same kind of work as you and they are finding ways to manage that burden. It’s not impossible.”
Cybercrime Against Children Task Force Program resources are available here.
https://www.woodtv.com/news/michigan/meet-the-michigan-state-police-cyber-crimes-unit/ Meet the Michigan State Police Cybercrime Unit