The Age of Digital Evidence
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a sharp shift in the way evidence is captured in photographs. 35mm film is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, like 8-Track cartridges or compact cassettes. Many law enforcement agencies have transitioned to digital cameras as a time and cost-saving measure to cut down on film processing, printing, and storage. In general, the adoption of digital technology calls for a modification of policies and procedures and possibly an evaluation of the agency’s evidence management system. In this day and age, with the rate of advancement in new technologies available to the public, we in the law enforcement community are challenged to constantly evaluate and update our systems and SOPs, not only to keep up with cutting edge technology but to maintain a clear vision of what lies ahead to stay ahead of it.
Not long ago, CDs and DVDs were widely used and many PCs and laptops were equipped with disc drives, which were necessary to load operating systems and other software. Today, more and more computer manufacturers are doing away with disc drives altogether, because they’re no longer a necessity. Now, software updates via wireless transmission for all devices are seamless and convenient for most users. The storage capacity of USB drives and various media cards is multiplying every year and they’re available at lower costs. Advancement in wireless transmission has exploded, bringing forth reliable and high definition data streaming services to millions. Cloud computing and related services continue to evolve and are rapidly gaining acceptance from corporations and government agencies alike.
How do we adapt to these changes and remain current with ever-changing technologies in the field of digital evidence? A good starting point is to evaluate our current evidence management system’s capabilities and answer the following questions to determine if a system update or replacement is necessary:
- Is the evidence management software capable of handling digital evidence?
- Is the system stand-alone or does it integrate with the agency’s RMS (records management system)?
- Is it capable of archiving and searching digital files?
- Is the chain of custody tracked?
- Is the uploading process of digital files secure and unalterable?
- How is digital evidence stored?
- Can the system automate retention schedules?
Next, a review of the process is recommended to ensure that digital evidence is preserved intact from the moment it’s captured at the crime scene to the moment it’s presented in the courtroom. Many agencies provide their officers with digital cameras, body cameras, and digital audio recorders to supplement documentation of their daily law enforcement actives. If officers are required to submit media cards to the evidence unit for uploading digital files into the evidence management system, it may be worthwhile to consider modifications to the SOPs which would permit officers to upload their digital evidence from the station or MDC/MDT. A systems update such as this may be expensive for the agency in the short term. Yet, in reality, it’s a long term investment, because officers will be back in the field, available for calls for service. Moreover, evidence and forensic personnel will have more time to perform their primary duties since they’d be removed from the uploading process altogether. Lastly, the uploaded digital files will be secure and readily available in the evidence management system for investigators and upper management.
People with bad intentions will undoubtedly take advantage of tools and methods that technological advances may provide to further their criminal activity. In this digital age, we in law enforcement must also be flexible and open to change. We, too, must take advantage of new technologies in the digital evidence realm, so we can always remain one step ahead.