Troy Lawrence has turned his 31-year-career in law enforcement and education in digital forensics full circle. He currently serves as a sergeant at the Fort Worth Police Department and is the supervisor of the digital forensics lab.
Mr. Lawrence, a 55-year-old Chickasaw originally from Oklahoma City, received an academic scholarship to Texas Wesleyan University following his high school graduation. At TWU, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
“I was on a partial scholarship, so I still had expenses to meet,” he said. “I was hired on as a dispatcher at the police department to make ends meet and pay for the rest of my schooling. After I started dispatching I decided I wanted to be on the other side of the radio. So I made the decision to go through the academy and start answering those same calls.”
After working as a patrolman, he moved to the criminal investigation department working on vice cases.
“In 2000, I was working in the vice section and we were investigating some cases with sensitive material,” he said. “We had one case that came in and not knowing any better we turned on the suspect’s computer and found the evidence and turned it over to the prosecutors. We were then told by the district attorney’s office that all of the files that we had viewed, we changed the last accessed dates and times. So, we had actually altered the original evidence and it couldn’t be used in the trial.”
After discussing the discrepancy, the district attorney told Mr. Lawrence about a process called computer forensics that must be followed. The DA listed schools that train on proper procedures of handling computer based data and evidence. Mr. Lawrence’s employer sent him to the initial training, a two-week course in Florida, in 2001. He became certified through International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS), Sept. 10, 2001.
“I got trained and certified in computer forensics and then came back and started doing forensics for all of the departments at the FWPD and it grew into a full-time position,” he said. “After that, the training was very expensive and my department couldn’t afford to send me to a lot of the training. So, I ended up getting there on my own, paying my own way through a lot of my training.”
Initially, computer-based police work wasn’t even acknowledged as an essential resource. Mr. Lawrence paved the way for computer-based forensics from the ground up at the Forth Worth department.
“They thought computers were a fad at the time,” he said. “Now, every home has them and everyone has a phone that has computer capabilities, which didn’t exist back then.
“When the iPhone came out, smart phones took off and now everyone has one. We went from primarily working on computers to now we primarily work on phones, because now there are even more phones seized than computers. Everything is now being kept online, either in the cloud or on an actual hard drive. So, as police we’re responsible for finding that evidence wherever it is digitally.”
The Fort Worth department has 1,700 officers and about 300 detectives seizing computers and phones from different suspect. After they seize the devices, they are sent to the digital forensics lab where Mr. Lawrence and the examiners he supervises extract the data. Mr. Lawrence and his team examine about 1,000 phones a year. They also support 40 different agencies within the Fort Worth department alone.
“Most of them are nearby agencies, but we’ve done work for the federal government, for the surrounding counties and municipal agencies around us,” he said. “I’ve had help request from other states around the U. S., as well. We don’t turn anyone away and we don’t charge them. We do it as a service.”
Finding his niche has allowed Mr. Lawrence to excel in his police career and in other organizations.
“I was promoted to detective and I was kept in the same unit in the digital forensics lab when I made detective, instead of going back to patrol like most people do just because I had a specific skill that the department needed,” he said. “In 2013 I was promoted to sergeant after taking an additional civil service test and I had to go back to patrol for a year, because it was mandated that all sergeants have to. At the end of my one year of patrol they put me back at the digital forensics lab to supervise and I have been there ever since.”
Mr. Lawrence also serves as director of training for IACIS. Since 2008, he has shared his training in digital forensics in Germany, Croatia, Spain, Estonia, New Zealand and more. His teaching focuses on the fundamentals of how to extract data from a device and parse through data to find the appropriate evidence and report the findings effectively.
He plans to take his teaching of digital forensics to the collegiate level after he retires. In 2019 he earned a master’s degree in digital forensics from Sam Houston State University. He is now working on his Ph.D.
“I applied and got accepted to Tarleton State University, where I’m working on my Ph.D. in criminal justice,” he said. “Hopefully, within three years I’ll have my Ph.D. and retire from the police department and I can teach at a university to graduate students.”
Mr. Lawrence’s reason for showing up to work every day after all of these years is quite simple – to put those who do harm in jail or away, so they can’t hurt others. “When you’re a kid you play cops and robbers and I was fortunate in that I got to be a real cop and help put the bad guys away,” he said.
His master’s degree was partially paid for by the scholarship program offered by the Chickasaw Nation. He is proud to be a Chickasaw citizen and has been interested in his Chickasaw heritage since a young age. His great-grandfather, George E. Criner, was an original Chickasaw enrollee.
Mr. Criner’s daughter was Lawrence’s grandmother. She told him about his Chickasaw heritage when he was in grade school.
“She was very proud of her heritage,” he said. “I started getting interested in genealogy way back then and did all of the research and was able to get all of our birth certificates and got us registered with CDIB cards and registered with the Chickasaw Nation and was able to pass that on to my kids.”
Mr. Lawrence and his wife, Pamela, have two daughters, Taylor Lawrence Steeno and Courtney Lawrence.