As digital evidence continues to become increasingly important, law enforcement agencies are trying to leverage the digital age by asking for citizens and business owners in their communities to register their cameras with law enforcement. We highlight big success stories around the country previously, now let’s discuss potential concerns surrounding evidence value.
Citizen Content by Definition
To make this easy, we can view citizen-based content as any digital content given to us by a non-law enforcement third party, be it a complainant, witness, or other third party, that they provide to us as evidence. And it’s important to consider this every time a citizen provides us content. It should never be considered that content from a citizen is anything other than evidence. It may be determined by other professionals later that the content has no evidentiary value, but in the case of line personnel receiving this content, they need to treat it as evidence the moment it is placed in their possession, otherwise chain of custody can be questioned almost immediately.
Types of Citizen Content
Citizens can produce content from their cellular devices, like photos, videos, and audio recordings. They can also produce text messages as raw files, text documents, emails, messaging data from third party applications, and even GPS/location data reported from other devices in the context of interaction with their device. All of these things can be evidence, and each one of them requires specific handling. With raw and location type data, you should consider electronic extraction from the device to law enforcement owned equipment (whether a storage array or business machine for analysis), rather than having the files emailed. This is a best practice, and eliminates any arguments that a raw file would have been altered in an email process.
Another consideration in the handling of citizen content is the file format. With video and audio files, if the file is an open source format (.MP4, .AVI, .WAV, etc.) you can generally accept these files through email transfers, as that process has been accepted by courts in numerous jurisdictions. Files that are a unique format, or proprietary in nature, need to be transferred to your custody via a direct means, like a CD/DVD, or through a thumb drive. Of course, agency policy may eliminate any thought process and require all files be obtained through direct means, regardless of format. We are merely expressing that baring restrictions, there are options depending on the file type.
Citizens may also employ cameras in their home or business. These cameras may have tons of data backing the video file you are obtaining, such as exif or metadata, sensor identification data (chart recording of when the camera alerted to activity), radar data (cameras that detect speed of objects in view), and even more data, as cameras expand into more programmable models. All of this data attaches to the video files in question. However, if there is a way to extract it into a document type file, this is far better for later analysis. This is in part to the fact that your agency likely doesn’t have complimentary software for the video in question to view and print that data from the file. Therefore, in using that information later, you wouldn’t be able to recover it. Instead, having a process in place to recover additional camera data from the file on scene solves two problems: first, you’ll have the data as a paper record, and ultimately be able to document its existence as evidence. Second, you’ll be able to upload the documents electronically, and be able to later share the data throughout the criminal justice process.
Tools for Collecting Citizen Content
While the standard practice of taking a disk or thumb drive to collect citizen content is standard, and is acceptable, something to consider is a digital evidence management system that can for a virtual portal for citizen content to uploaded to, so that instantaneous tracking and audit trail creation is automated, and recorded in real-time for the content in question. This should also give the officer the ability to assign a case number during portal upload, so that the items can be sitting in the case, and the officer can then take extra steps after clearing the scene to add pertinent information, and make notifications to any personnel who need to be aware of the content upload.
Another potential method of gathering citizen content is to have a mobile application that is linked to your digital evidence management system. With a USB 2.0 or 3.0 cord, you can extract content from the citizen’s device directly, and then manage its entry into your own system using the mobile device to assign the items to a case, write in what the content is, provide witness, complainant, and suspect data, and then uplink the data to your agency storage using mobile data, or wifi signal.
But in order to do any of this, you need web-based software. You need software that considers the important of mobile devices, and how the job of evidence collection is truly mobile in nature, rather than static, in an office, under perfect conditions. If your digital evidence management system isn’t capable of this functionality, it is likely time to consider an upgrade.
Digital evidence is coming at law enforcement from a number of angles, none more pronounced than various content that citizens provide, whether they are a victim, complainant, witness, or another type of third party. Having the ability to navigate, and mitigate the challenges their content can present in the field is the job of your digital evidence management system, which should make these tasks simple for your personnel, so they can focus on the real work of investigating the crimes digital content exposes. The more ahead of the trends you can be, the better your agency can operate, in and out of the courtroom.
Be safe out there!