March 30, 2015

During his days as a police officer, Jason Lewis had to explain to people that no, there is no magical satellite capturing videos of every crime; sorry, he can’t just “clean up” video surveillance from a gas station; and, ultimately, anything isn’t possible.

Lewis says TV shows like CSI have convinced people that solving crimes, especially computer crimes, is magic, but it’s not. He likes CSI—he calls it a “fun comedy”—but he wants his students to know that computer forensics is not as simple as TV shows make it look. He wants them to understand it’s a science.


Lewis is uniquely positioned to help people understand that. A senior instructor in CU Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, Lewis has that mix of real-life and academic experience that make his lessons particularly engaging. First a math/computer science teacher, then a police officer, and now both an instructor and a cyber crimes investigator for the Secret Service, Lewis has always been passionate about giving back to his community. Today, he does that by teaching students what his years of adventures have taught him about technology, crime, and answering tragedy with justice.

Fighting for Justice

Over the course of his life, Lewis has wanted to work at least 20 different jobs. When he was a kid, he wanted to be a high school teacher and a fire fighter—a direct result of firefighters visiting his elementary school with their cool giant ladders. His fire fighting dreams eventually fell away, but his desire to teach never did. After high school, he enrolled in a teacher education program and, eager to teach a classroom of willing college students, went on to get his PhD. But while Lewis was in school, tragedy struck. His younger brother, Matthew, was murdered.

To this day, the only facts Lewis knows about the murder is what was published in the newspaper, which wasn’t much. He knows Matthew was flirting with the wrong girl at a Tucson, Ariz., bar one night and that when he left, the girl’s boyfriend allegedly followed Matthew’s car and shot him at a stoplight. The police chalked the incident up to gang violence.

Lewis pushed for an investigation, for justice for his brother’s death, but it never came. The alleged shooter was never found. Still, Lewis believes things happen for a reason, and took the tragedy as a sign. If he wasn’t going to get justice, Lewis decided, he was at least going to make sure that other people would. At 27, within a year of Matthew’s death, Lewis became a cop.

“I don’t like to gripe about things,” Lewis says. “If something is wrong, I like to actually go fix it. I wanted to make things better for other people, so I decided to just do it.”

The police work wasn’t easy. Patrolling the streets of Atlanta meant long days in stifling heat and emergency calls in the middle of the night. Still, Lewis describes his six years as a cop as exciting, fulfilling, and sprinkled with funny memories. He still laughs when he tells the story of a man he was trying to arrest who went running when he saw Lewis’s handcuffs. He didn’t get very far—the man’s pants were sagged so low that they fell around his ankles and tripped him in the middle of the street. Lewis had to stop laughing before he could make the arrest.

But throughout those six years, he had a plan.  With his educational background, Lewis decided to become an electronic crimes investigator, a kind of detective solving crimes with clues left behind in computers, cell phones, or cyber space. Eventually, Lewis’s superiors noticed his good work, and when an opening came up, they finally said the words Lewis had been waiting to hear—“Go play with the Secret Service.”

Cyber Crimes

There isn’t a secret handshake or initiation when you begin work with the Secret Service, just a whole lot of solving crime. Lewis has been doing computer forensics ever since his move from the police station, solving crimes with a criminal’s cell phone, computer, or the web. Essentially, Lewis digs through a suspect’s device, like a computer, looking for clues, which could be anything from photographs of a stalked woman to spread sheets proving insurance fraud.

Of course, most criminals know to clear a hard drive before Lewis gets his hands on it, so he often has to recover deleted information. Sometimes he’s tasked with recovering information from a network, which means Lewis doesn’t even have a computer to work with. One device could be in Florida, one in Washington, with the information spread out across cyber space, and Lewis still has to find the hidden information. Lewis calls this “fun.”

In the last three years, Lewis has worked dozens of cases ranging from small, local crimes to larger federal crimes. His “snooping” has helped solve cases involving million-dollar fraud, child pornography, and murder. Though he can’t talk about most of these cases because they’re still ongoing in the legal system, he can talk about what he’s learned from them, and that’s what he’s doing as a senior instructor at CU Denver.

Giving Back in the Classroom

Lewis says teaching may not have the kind of immediate gratification he got when he saved lives as a cop, but it’s a kind of giving back that he’s passionate about. He returned part-time to the classroom in 2012, then full-time in 2013, simply because he missed inspiring new thinkers. He’s especially excited about the computer forensics course he’s teaching at CU South Denver, a two-week course that offers a certification in computer forensics. That course is increasingly important, Lewis says, because computer forensics is the next big wave in law enforcement.

Soon, law enforcement will begin looking for scientists to solve computer crimes full time just like they had to find specialists to focus on blood splatter, finger printing, and DNA in the past. There’s going to be a huge employment pool for people with that skill set, Lewis says, and he wants to make sure he’s equipping students to fill it. In the next few years, Lewis hopes to build a full, interdisciplinary computer forensics program at CU Denver, a program that doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the Rockies but is becoming increasingly relevant.

“I try to have a real-world perspective with everything I teach,” Lewis says. “I want my students to see that computer science is really useful and really fun. Yes, it’s hard work, but there are all kinds of wonderful, fun things you can do with that degree now. I love teaching students that.”

Lewis has one classroom policy: you can always ask him to tell a funny story. His years as a cop and his ongoing work with the Secret Service has given him plenty of those, and he wants his students to see the kind of adventures they can have with their degree. Sitting in his classroom, it’s clear that his students love him for it.

In Lewis’s office, there’s a scarf on his chair in the bright orange and purple of the university where he got his PhD. It was created by a CU Denver student who spent hours knitting in his class. Lewis would tease his student for her classroom behavior, asking her if she was making him a scarf.  To his surprise, that’s what she ended up doing. She gave it to him at the end of the semester, just in time for winter.

Simple as it is, that scarf is a reminder of what Lewis loves about his job—the students. Given the opportunity to get back in the patrol car, Lewis says, no question, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t change his career again for the world.

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