Digital evidence on VHS tapes

Digital evidence on VHS tapes

In this day and age, you’d probably be as surprised as we were to learn that many law enforcement agencies around the country are still using VHS tapes to store digital evidence. Most police departments have already stopped using VHS tapes, but still maintain a lot of old digital evidence, some of which is crucial, on VHS tapes. A few months ago, we published a blog post about the Problems with using CDs/DVDs to store digital evidence and today we thought it's important to mention few of the problems you will face in the near future if you continue to use VHS tapes.

  1. There is no real of custody for digital evidence as far as who has viewed the tapes or who has copied them. While you probably have a chain of custody for the VHS tape itself, that’s simply not enough. 
  2. There is no security.  Once the VHS tape (or a copy) leaves the evidence room, you have no control over what happens to it. Imagine the embarrassment if a sensitive recording were to show up in the press or on YouTube. 
  3. There is no way to verify authenticity. Tapes could be altered before being copied to another tape and no one would ever know. 
  4. It can be tough to manage the digital evidence on large cases. For example, you receive multiple tapes from a crime scene, then, a few days later, more tapes arrive from the lab or from a search warrant.  Later on you receive videos from multiple suspect interviews. There are a lot of labeling considerations just to keep it all straight. It can be particularly challenging when investigators or prosecutors want to review the digital evidence. You’ll have to sort through all of those tapes and try find the exact ones you need, then go through the time consuming dubbing process.
  5. Cross referencing one case with another or sharing a single piece of evidence between related cases is complicated. 
  6. The labor involved can be intensive. Even when the case is closed you still need to dispose the related physical evidence. 
  7. One little known technical problems with VHS tapes is that they go bad and become unusable after a certain period of time. Losing digital evidence might be catastrophic to your case and you will have to make new copies of VHS tapes for each case every 2-3 years just to preserve the evidence on them.
  8. VHS tapes players are very rare in the marketplace today. What if yours breaks and you need to play that tape 5 years from now? Will you even be able to find a player by then?
  9. Having any VHS tape close to any magnetic field will destroy the tape in a very short period of time.

The list goes on but we wanted to point out few of the issues. Don’t depend on luck and stop using VHS tapes store your digital evidence.

If your evidence room contains any digital evidence on VHS tapes, it should be digitized as soon as possible. All digitized digital evidence files should be uploaded, unaltered, into your digital evidence management software. Your evidence management software should allow you to find all the VHS tapes on any case. Assign an evidence custodian to convert all of your tapes into digital format and upload them to their perspective cases in your digital evidence management software before it's too late. Keep the VHS tape as a physical evidence item and track its chain of custody in your evidence management software buy don’t rely on playing its content in the court room.

The same rule applies for cold cases and suspects/victims interviews recorded on VHS tapes, they all need to be converted to digital files and stored properly in your digital evidence management software. We know such job is not easy and takes long time but it’s a lot better than the embarrassment you could face for losing sensitive evidence and compromising a big case.