Combining old-fashioned detective work with newfangled computer savvy, Austin’s high-tech police unit is cracking down on hackers, chip thieves, and other futuristic felons.

AT THREE IN THE MORNING last October 19, a Vietnamese gang burst into the headquarters of the Surface Mount Taping Corporation, a small computer-components company in South Austin. Armed with a .45-caliber pistol and a semiautomatic handgun, the gang of four men and one woman tied up the night-shift employees with professional dispatch and searched the building for valuable memory chips. When they couldn’t find what they were after, they grabbed some inexpensive cellular-phone parts and vanished without a trace.

The scene seemed straight out of The Net or some other postmodern Hollywood thriller and so, oddly enough, did the response by the Austin Police Department. Along with two officers from the APD’s robbery unit came two officers from the department’s new high-tech crime unit—one of only two such units in the country (the other is in San Jose, California). For years security officers at Austin’s high-tech firms had been pushing for the creation of such a unit, fearing that the city’s emergence as a techie mecca would lead to an increase in computer-related crimes. Only two years ago did city and law enforcement officials finally give the go-ahead for such a unit, however, and only eleven months ago did the unit get formally inaugurated—just in time, judging by the Surface Mount caper.

The memory chip is the dope of the nineties,” says Bob Watson, the security chief of XeTel, an Austin-based manufacturer of made-to-order computer components. It’s a good analogy because the tiny microprocessors are worth more than their weight in gold or crack cocaine and can easily be shipped out of state or out of the country before police officers file their burglary reports. As Watson notes, high-tech firms in California have been plagued in recent years by a rash of armed robberies and even truck hijackings. Within the past year and a half, crime in Silicon Valley has increased fivefold, and that could augur a dark side to Austin’s technological boom. “It’s almost eerie how everything here has developed parallel to there,” Watson says—and in fact, although the Surface Mount case has yet to be solved, police investigators theorize that the gang has West Coast ties.

Watson knows a thing or two about high-tech crime. His firm has been held up twice in the past two years, and once his employees were tied up in a storeroom so the thieves could make their getaway. And it was Watson who, in 1994, convened a meeting of other security chiefs to discuss the problem. “We were concerned that Austin was getting a reputation for being an easy target,” he recalls. Right away, he and his colleagues realized that almost every company represented at the meeting had a criminal investigation in the works. After talking for a while, they hit on a solution: a new kind of cop whose beat would be cyberspace. “If you see police officers as doughnut-eating head-thumpers or Starsky and Hutch throwing guys against the wall,” Watson says, “that won’t be the stereotype for the high-tech policeman. He’s more likely a nerdy-looking guy in a gray vested suit. Instead of a hogleg from the Dirty Harry days, he’ll carry a laptop computer.”

Actually, once the APD agreed to create such a high-tech unit, its early recruits to be chief investigators weren’t what you’d call nerdy. Paul Brick, who is 39, came from the APD’s major-crimes division; he has the rapid-fire speech and wiry intensity of a streetwise narcotics cop. Randy Bradley, who is 32, had been a patrolman in Abilene. He has a broad, open face, a stocky build, and a careful but direct way of speaking—the classic good cop in a good-cop-bad-cop scenario. As it happened, he had spent five years learning about computers largely on his own time and initiative, and he had attended classes and training sessions around the country, including a program on basic investigation of computer crimes sponsored by the United States Department of Justice.

Unfortunately, even with Brick and Bradley set to begin, there were problems with the kind of unit Watson and his colleagues had envisioned. The high-tech crime unit in San Jose, for example, was funded by the city’s police department. But given the APD’s tight budget, an Austin unit would not be feasible without direct sponsorship by local high-tech firms. And yet Austin city statutes prohibit individuals and corporations from donating cash directly to any specific government activity—so even if local firms could come up with the money for such a department and donated it to the City of Austin, there would be no guarantee that it would actually be used for that purpose; the money would simply go into a general fund. Such direct sponsorship also presented a public relations problem. From inside and outside the department, there was grumbling that citizens would see high-tech companies as receiving special treatment—as having, in effect, their own police force—at a time when things like drug use and juvenile crime are more pressing issues than chip theft.

To resolve those problems, the companies backing the high-tech unit christened the project the Austin Metro High Tech Foundation and channeled money through the nonprofit Austin Community Foundation, which would make donations of equipment as well as money to be used for overtime pay. The arrangement was similar to the one that brought the DARE (Drug Awareness Recognition Education) project into the state’s public schools.

Yet there were other obstacles to overcome. One had to do with the secretive nature of high-tech companies. Competitors in the cutting-edge world of technology tend to be image-conscious; they can get a reputation for negligence or sloppiness if their security measures fail, putting the value of their stock in jeopardy. Then there was the issue of the APD’s credibility. The department has hardly been a national or even a state leader in high-tech equipment. As of last summer, according to the Austin American-Statesman, the APD’s basic technology, including the computer terminals in its squad cars, was found by the city to be inadequate and in dire need

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week