Jamie Wilson provides his ten must-haves for an effective digital evidence management solution.
Police forces often face problems when it comes to the collection of digital evidence. As digital becomes even more vital in daily lives, there is a growing need for police units to invest in a digital evidence management (DEM) solution.
While a DEM can be an extremely effective way to manage evidence, and in turn help solve cases, it can also hinder the investigative process when the right elements are not in place. Without a solution that has been thought through and managed in the right way, it can create a ripple effect on public safety.
So, what should you look for in a DEM solution? Here are the top ten must-haves for an effective digital evidence management solution:
1. Mobile data collection
Police forces in and around the UK are beginning – if they have not done so already – to equip officers with smartphones. Officers are able to access 999 calls, run numberplate checks, complete criminal background checks, fill out accident or domestic violence reports, take crime scene photographs and conduct field interviews.
Thanks to new DEM technology, smartphones are not only for officers in the field, but can also assist crime scene investigators as well. Using new DEM solutions, investigators can connect to a browser-based ‘investigator portal’ from their smartphone or tablet, and upload digital evidence (recorded statements, photographs, video, etc) into a case file, while still in the field. In addition to saving time, investigators can start collecting and building their case before they even return to the station.
With today’s technology and systems integrations, investigators can collect, connect and chase leads right from the device. The faster you get information, the faster you can take action on it. It is the equivalent of having a crime analyst in their pocket.
2. Transforming data into actionable intelligence with analytics
It is imperative that you get a full view across the case since successful investigations rely on an investigator’s ability to connect many sources of digital evidence.
A myriad of data could mean that if the investigator is doing an analysis in one silo, that silo is not looking at what is happening in a different data source or case to compare and draw references between the two.
It is not just about looking at current cases; many require investigators to correlate current and past cases. Connecting evidence from previous cases, and then aligning it with an ongoing case is key. For example, if an individual was even briefly mentioned in another case, the DEM solution would automatically bring that information to your attention. So with this in mind, your DEM solution also needs to be able to search within the content of records to pull back evidence too.
3. Collaboration and information sharing
Successful investigations require information sharing on many levels. The public needs to share information with the police; investigators need to share information with each other; and case evidence needs to be shared with the prosecutor.
For most police departments, processes are highly ineffective and manual, with groups not gaining access to information when they need it, if at all.
Crowdsourcing is being used by forces as it can be a very effective system. Let us take crowdsourced evidence, for example. Crowdsourced evidence in the form of videos, photographs and tips, often provides some of the best leads in cases.
It is vital that a DEM system enables investigators to share evidence with prosecution teams at the touch of a button, through a secure portal.
4. Making proprietary video playable
CCTV played a vital role in identifying the perpetrators who carried out the London Underground bombing in 2005 – and since then has been important to other investigations.
With CCTV comes copious amounts of footage, which to sift through is a challenge; but it is not the only one. Investigators often bring CCTV video footage back to the station only to find they have no way of actually playing it. Proprietary codecs are needed to make videos playable, and sometimes they can be hard to find and obtain. With the lack of industry standards in CCTV, the recovery of digital video evidence has turned into something of a research project.
DEM offers a better way, by automatically transcoding video into a standard format that can be played on any desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
It is a time and cost problem. In a larger department, an investigator may have a video specialist on staff, otherwise they might have to wait for someone in a different department to send the video.
The DEM solution creates a working copy of the video and maintains the original version to insure the integrity of the evidence. If there are multiple videos, standardising the format means they can even be viewed and synchronously played back in a timeline, along with other multimedia (eg, body-worn video, in-car video or audio recordings).
Daniel Dvorak, retired chief of police for the Cambridge Police Department in the US, said it “provides compelling evidence for a judge or jury”, adding: “Watching the scene unfold in real-time gives them a feeling of being there.”
5. Information alerting
In the early stages of a major case, investigators need to run every single lead into the ground. When there are many moving parts, it is challenging to keep track of everything.
DEM automates the tracking of evidence requests and notifies investigators when requests are fulfilled. This makes it easier for the investigator to stay on top of active cases, and not lose track of evidence or leads. It is also helpful from a discovery standpoint. The investigator is always aware when evidence is added to a case. They are also alerted when a business responds to an electronic request and uploads CCTV video.
If detectives are working a case together, with an effective information alert, they will know when a team member adds evidence to a case folder.
Automation plays a part in helping cases get solved and quickly. Each case has a time limit – and gathering evidence is, in most cases, a race against time.
As leads grow cold, time can make the difference between putting offenders behind bars or leaving them free to commit more crimes. Providing a single system for the investigator to do their work, and automating the processes around collecting, analysing and sharing digital evidence, can help the police get criminals off the streets faster.
In a murder case, a detective could save weeks in terms of time just by automating processes around finding, collecting and converting CCTV video. They can also save more time that would have been spent manually searching across multiple data sources for evidence, waiting for audio recordings, building a timeline, and copying evidence onto CDs, DVDs and ‘thumb drives’. Speeding up the time to case closure can, in turn, lead to earlier charging decisions and even an increased likelihood of guilty pleas.
Automation also removes the variance of human error around the processes of collecting, analysing and sharing evidence. It also helps to standardise practices, which makes them much more defensible when you get into a scenario where you need to prove how you are handling evidence. If it is all automated, there is no variation. The more automation you have, the fewer times you have to touch the evidence, and the cleaner your chain of custody.
7. Single sign-on for investigators
Patrol officers do most of their work in RMS (records management systems); dispatchers work in CAD (computer aided dispatch); but investigators still do not have one single platform on which to work. Instead, they need to log into lots of different systems to pull data, not just body-worn camera footage, but ANPR (automatic numberplate recognition), in-car video, interview recordings, CAD, RMS and more. And complicate matters still further, what they cannot access on their own – for example, any 999 recordings which they need to request from other departments.
A recent survey – The Digital Frontline: Rethinking the use of data and information in modern policing, conducted by Dods Group and MarkLogic – puts numbers to the problem. The report states: “One of the most significant drawbacks of existing police software, aside from poor search functionality, is the disconnected nature of the systems,” also referred to in the report as “chair swivelling”. When asked how many different systems they typically needed to log into to work on cases, 95 per cent of survey respondents said at least two systems, and 25 per cent said they needed to log into anywhere between six and more than 11.
With the right type of DEM solution in place, you will effectively have the glue that can bring all systems together. It can provide a one-stop shop for gathering evidence – the investigator no longer has to waste time logging onto all of the individual systems to manually collect evidence to build their case. Having a single view through an investigative portal for conducting work also empowers investigators to perform a universal search for evidence across all connected data sources.
8. Software agnostic
Having a software agnostic solution is imperative so that it can seamlessly integrate with any digital policing solution used by the department (type and brand). It also needs to integrate through an open integration layer. If a DEM solution is able to sit on top of underlying systems, such as RMS, all information can now be packaged in a standard format and virtual case file. The fact that the underlying systems are all different is transparent to the prosecutor.
An added benefit of this approach is that it is also future-proof. Agencies can upgrade or replace underlying systems as needed, without having to do a complete ‘rip and replace’ of their overarching DEM solution. The right DEM solution must also be adaptable, like crime, and the systems necessary to conduct investigations into crimes need to evolve as well.
In choosing a DEM, you need to make sure that it is adaptable to your department, and not the other way around. The aim of a DEM is to help, not hinder.
If you do not make sure it works with what you have, or may have in the future, you may get pigeon-holed if you choose an ‘off-the-shelf’ DEM solution that does not support existing workflows, or integrates only to one or a few pre-determined digital evidence sources and/or brands. You need to look for a DEM tailored to the systems and processes you use and have the flexibility to adapt, rather than being forced into the vendor’s way of doing things.
10. Cloud-based, scalable and secure
More and more we are starting to see police forces turn to the cloud as they become inundated with digital evidence.
The inherent scalability of the cloud means DEM solutions can easily and seamlessly adjust to meet an agency’s changing investigative workloads and evidence storage requirements. For instance, if there is a major incident that results in thousands of uploads to the DEM system, it can automatically increase processing power to accommodate the demand. Cloud-based DEM solutions also eliminate the up-front hardware and resource costs associated with premise-based solutions.
Make sure you find a cloud-based solution that is compliant and protects data through strong encryption. Two-factor login authentication, anti-virus protection and built-in chain of custody tracking should also be prerequisites.
Hopefully, these must-have elements will help you when looking for the right DEM solution to suit the needs of your police force.
Jamie Wilson is responsible for public safety marketing for NICE Systems throughout EMEA.