Gain when you train

Matt McFadden and Mike Anderson set out eight reasons why consistent digital training for police officers is so important.

Jan 26, 2021
Picture: Cellebrite

Working in law enforcement necessarily involves a lot of training – on firearms, legal issues, new tools, compliance, new laws and regulations, and much more. Technological progress today, which has brought the ubiquity of mobile phones and the increased access to, and use of, cloud services, requires we add another topic to the list – digital intelligence (DI), which is the data extracted from digital sources, such as smartphones, computers and the cloud, and the process by which agencies access, manage and leverage data to more efficiently run their operations.

Now that all cases have some digital aspect, it is more important than ever to ensure your agency has a strategy (and budget) for effective, relevant and ongoing digital forensic training.

The list of benefits of a well-trained, technology-forward agency are too numerous to list, but we have distilled some of the most impactful reasons. If there was ever a time to prioritise such strategies it would be now – read on to find out what your agency has to gain.

  1. When tools do not return results, have the know-how and ability to look deeper

Technology has given law enforcement many incredible investigative tools, including some that still feel straight out of science fiction. There are even many tools that perform instantaneous, single-button ‘Hollywood’ analytics (as we call them) – attach the device to the relevant machine, press a button and instantly download all of a witness’s or suspect’s text messages or video files, for example.

But as useful as these tools are, there will always be occasions where their results do not tell the whole story. Agencies need officers with expertise that goes beyond just press-button analysis. If they receive surprising results – a complete lack of text messages where there should be many – they can recognise there is something else going on. As a real-world example, something as simple as a change in file naming conventions or data structures can cause these misses. Without someone who knows to take a deeper second look, your agency could be overlooking gigabytes of evidence by misunderstanding how these tools work.

  1. Confident and reliable digital chains of custody

As experienced law enforcement officers will know, dealing with evidence does not end with extraction. Evidence is gathered to be used in a court of law, as part of a legal case, meaning it is subject to a set of legal standards that begin at the point of collection. The same goes for digital evidence.

Officers must have at least a basic understanding of how digital evidence works, how it is collected, and how its provenance can be explained in a court of law. Far too many times we have seen digital evidence rendered inadmissible because officers simply cannot explain how they found and accessed it. With a solid digital training regime, 99 per cent of these issues could be avoided, leading to more evidence, more convictions and more criminals off the streets.

  1. Stop the revolving door of technology expertise

Far too often, the job of having ‘tech smarts’ falls to one or a small few officers. If there is no plan for succession or passing on of those skills, it can leave behind a glaring gap in expertise once that officer moves on or is promoted. If this cycle continues, it can be hard to establish a digital knowledge base and in-house expertise will always feel incomplete.

When most or all officers have at least a basic understanding of DI, you can begin to really build expertise into the culture. The lone technology expert ceases to be a bottleneck, and cases progress more quickly. This is not to say you will not always have specialised experts on staff – but basic digital knowledge needs to be the default minimum for any modern agency.

  1. Get connected to a network of experts

As a continuation to the point above, realise that no one is going to become the expert on every single aspect of DI. It is still important to arm everyone with a good foundation, but unless you run the most well-funded agency on the planet, it is simply impossible to bring so much expertise under one roof. Training, however, can help.

When it comes to expertise, training serves two purposes. First, it exposes more officers to different fields, allowing them to explore and delve deeper and become better and more knowledgeable. Secondly, it builds up the network of expertise available to your organisation. In a time when budgets are strapped, this is the basis for the important inter-agency collaboration opportunities – we often say knowing the perfect digital expert to call is as good as being one yourself. Through training, you begin to build this network of ‘phone-a-friend’ resources for digital issues in your blind spots.

Innovations like advanced analytics solutions are transforming the way agencies are conducting investigations. To keep pace with the changing digital landscape, investigative teams should be constantly updating their skills through refresher courses.


  1. Establish digital training’s rightful place in the budget

The world is not getting less digital, and crime certainly is not. For tomorrow’s law enforcement organisations, a digital understanding will be only more important. Unfortunately, digital training is often the first thing to be cut – this is exactly the opposite of what law enforcement agencies need to be doing. There is no overstating it – if you care about your department’s ability to fulfill its mission in the future, you should be fighting for a significant and permanent place in the budget for ongoing digital training. Planting that seed today will mean extremely bountiful harvests when it comes to digital expertise in the near future.

6.Your whole organisation needs to understand the job of digital investigators

Chances are your dedicated digital teams face an incredible workload and may feel underappreciated and misunderstood. Consistent, high-quality digital forensic training is a good way to give your DI teams the credit they are due at an organisational level. When more of your staff understand the challenges their digital teams face, they gain empathy for their work. Understanding and empathy lead to better cooperation, better working relationships, better morale and more crimes solved and cases advanced.

  1. Keep the organisation up to date with rapidly updating technology

With digital technology, the pace of progress is exponentially faster than say updates in firearms or vehicle systems. What worked six months ago might not today, and there are new phones and computers, with their own file formats and encryption, released every year. To match that pace, and keep up with it as it gets even faster, digital forensic training must be an integral part of every organisation’s strategy. Catching up after falling behind will only get more costly.

  1. Create a foundation/knowledge base for continued excellence in DI and forensics

If you take one thought away from this piece, we hope it is this: you must start today if you want to create a strong foundation for DI strategy. Begin building your toolbox, even if it initially comes from third-party expertise.

Our company, Cellebrite, has been training agencies for decades, and we have seen how committed agencies can quickly build themselves into digital powerhouses. Training is a strong start but it must be continually bolstered with the hiring of in-house expertise and investment in tools that support the mission.

Mike Anderson is Global Manager of Contract Trainers at Cellebrite. He is an accomplished forensic trainer with more than 16 years’ experience in computer/digital evidence forensics. He has spent more than 28 years working in public safety and has testified in local, state and federal courts and has been recognised as an expert witness in the field of digital forensics.

Matt McFadden is Director of Training at Cellebrite. He has more than 20 years’ digital forensic experience, including expert testimony in state superior and US federal courts. He is a retired police sergeant with the Clovis Police Department and has been writing and instructing digital forensic curriculum at domestic and international venues for over 16 years.

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