Corporal Erin Diamond discusses the closure of Wayne County's Internet Crime Unit this week. He is talking next to a flowchart of a suspected sex trafficking ring and equipment used to monitor web traffic. (Joel Kurth / The Detroit News)
Livonia— Computers seized from a convicted pedophile have sat for weeks in a police conference room, casualties of an ongoing feud about funding public safety in Wayne County.
Wrapped in plastic, the three hard drives were taken from the home of a sex offender who violated parole. But they haven’t been analyzed because Sheriff Benny Napoleon eliminated his nationally recognized Internet Crime Unit on Jan. 2.
Napoleon said he had no choice because his office isn’t properly funded. Commissioners say the sheriff has only himself to blame. Amid the squabbling, the county’s backlog of sex cases is growing.
“Politics are getting in the way,” said Cpl. Raymond Johnson, one of two members of the Internet Crime Unit. “We were doing everything we can to get these monsters off the streets ... It’s sad that children’s lives are being played with like a chess game.”
In late December, eight months after ending his narcotics and vice squads, Napoleon reassigned deputies from the Internet Crime Unit and the Violent Crimes Task Force and those on regional task forces to work in the county’s three jails.
Only nine deputies were affected in the 1,000-member department, but it essentially marked the end of police work for Napoleon’s force. All that remains are about 19 deputies who are paid through state grants to help patrol roads.
“I’ve been rendered unable to help communities in a time of crisis,” Napoleon said. “This is a great, great disservice to the citizens.”
He reassigned deputies paid out of jail budgets amid an ongoing court case about funding. Napoleon’s office blew its $89 million budget last year by nearly $30 million, primarily because of overtime paid to meet state-mandated jail staffing levels.
Napoleon is suing Wayne County for another $20 million.
County Commissioner Shannon Price, R-Canton Township, said the sheriff chose to shut down special units rather than seek other solutions or fix waste highlighted in recent audits. By law, Napoleon’s only mandated job is to operate jails, Price added.
“The sheriff has a tendency of trying to point a finger rather than trying to fix it,” Price said. “He does it time and again. He has a $30 million budget hole that he just ignores.”
The Internet unit was formed in 1998 and evolved from trolling chat rooms for pederasts to gathering evidence in some of the region’s most notorious cases. Among other cases, the deputies have gathered smart phone and computer evidence in the murder of Grosse Pointe Park businesswoman Jane Bashara, the 2010 disappearance of the Skelton brothers in Morenci and the 2011 killing of 2-year-old Bianca Jones by her father, D’Andre Lane.
Last week, Prosecutor Kym Worthy — who is also fighting with county officials over her budget — petitioned Gov. Rick Snyder to come up with alternate funds to revive the Internet unit. Its deputies are two of six police officials statewide certified to extract digital evidence for court cases.
“This closure will substantially affect our ability to prosecute some of our most serious cases, including homicides,” Worthy said. “... Not only does ICU possess a high level of expertise analyzing digital evidence, forensics and Internet crimes but they do so at a fraction of the cost of private agencies.”
Wayne County’s Internet unit worked on task forces led by the State Police and FBI that are credited with rescuing at least 50 minors from sex abuse or other crimes last year and more than 270 since 2007, according to police statistics.
In three weeks, the backlog of cases has grown to two months, said Cpl. Erin Diamond, a founding member of the squad. He said the federal officials have invested $675,000 in training for the unit that now will go to waste.
Both deputies said they’ve been approached about working in the private sector but have a passion for protecting children. Sitting this week on folding chairs in an undercover building in Livonia that used to serve as their headquarters, they swapped stories from their 12-year partnership.
Johnson left a New Year’s Eve party to use social media to track down a child abducted in Inkster. Diamond helped prevent a double suicide by a Plymouth Township teen and a 35-year-old man by working quickly to recover deleted text messages. They helped thwart a suicide of a 12-year-old in Canton Township who was “sextorted” by a teen who recorded an intimate web chat and threatened to distribute it unless she sent lewd photos every day.
“Anybody calls, we jump and help,” Diamond said.
If dismantling the unit was intended to save money, it’s backfired, he said. The FBI used to pay overtime for the pair, but in three weeks, Diamond said he’s made more from Wayne County than he has in 10 years.