Sep 19 2022

Digital Evidence Management: How Criminal Justice Agencies Adopt New Methods

Agencies can share digital evidence faster as they receive more and more video, email and other digital records.

Until recently, analysts estimate, many large police departments were among the leading buyers of physical media, especially CDs and Blu-ray discs — not that they wanted to be.

“Police have been huge CD purchasers because they’ve had to put digital evidence onto discs and physically take them to other agencies,” says Alison Brooks, research vice president for IDC. “You can imagine the inefficiencies.”

In many cases, their colleagues in the judiciary preferred doing things that way. In addition to being mostly analog and paper-based, says Brooks, courts and prosecutors were just fine using “sneakernet” to share what digital evidence existed. But these days, virtually every case includes digital evidence of some kind — email, cellphone records or video — and it’s much simpler to handle that evidence in the cloud.

“It’s basically taken law enforcement agencies saying, ‘We’re no longer working this way; we’re working digitally,’ for things to change,” Brooks says.

EXPLORE: How transparent crime data is helping law enforcement.

That was certainly the case for the Pasadena (Calif.) Police Department. In 2016, like many other police departments, Pasadena PD started issuing body-worn cameras to officers, initiating a deluge of potential digital evidence. Today, the department has almost 300 Axon body cameras in the field and estimates officers average two hours of recorded video per shift.

Pasadena PD says it has handled more than 1 million pieces of digital evidence in the five years since issuing body cameras, including digital recordings, images and electronic documents. To keep it organized and better share information among agencies, Pasadena PD adopted Axon’s Evidence cloud-based digital evidence management platform.

“The department receives daily discovery requests from the city prosecutor’s and district attorney’s offices,” explains Pasadena PD Supervisor Evelyn Quinteros. “Before, digital evidence had to be copied to Blu-ray discs and walked over to their respective offices. With the Axon Evidence system, digital evidence is gathered and shared electronically.”

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How Law Enforcement Is Better Handling Digital Evidence

The scope of digital evidence and the tools needed to process it are growing quickly. In a 2020 review of digital evidence trends for Interpol, the global international police organization, researchers said the market for digital forensics tools — solutions for generating and extracting digital evidence — would hit nearly $10 billion this year, up from $4.6 billion in 2017.

The resulting need for digital evidence management systems has been spurred not only by the vast amount of digital evidence now being created — most notably by bodycams, smartphones, closed-circuit TV systems and even video doorbells — but also by the mounting challenge state and local agencies face when attempting to categorize digital evidence.

RELATED: How cloud-based tools assist investigators with data collection and analysis.

“I’m a forensic examiner by background, and there was a time when, if I wanted someone’s email inbox, they’d just hand me an entire Exchange database and off we’d go. Not anymore,” says Jim Emerson, vice president of the National White Collar Crime Center and chair of the Computer Crime and Digital Evidence Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Not everything in an Exchange database rises to the level of evidence, just as not all bodycam, doorbell and user-generated smartphone video is evidence. Which makes organizing, tagging and tracking digital evidence that much more important.

“Also, there are a lot of digital records inside police departments that they don’t consider evidence now because they’re not tied to a case, but they could be evidence in a month or year,” Emerson says. “That category’s growing because of the amount of automation agencies are leaning on. A huge issue in this digital evidence management discussion is defining what digital evidence is.”

Evelyn Quinteros
With the Axon Evidence system, digital evidence is gathered and shared electronically.”

Evelyn Quinteros Police Supervisor, Pasadena Police Department

Digital Evidence Management Is Enabling Public Disclosure

Today’s systems help agencies organize digital artifacts by relevance and maintain transparency and evidentiary integrity across a chain of custody. When digital evidence is loaded into a system, it’s typically accessible only to authorized personnel. The original remains unalterable, and all access to the evidence is tracked. This level of control is critical to ensure digital evidence holds up to scrutiny.

At the Pasadena PD, bodycam video is automatically uploaded into the Evidence platform when officers place the cameras in docking stations at the end of each shift. Authenticated users can access the system from any computer or mobile device, but that access is controlled.

“The system has the ability to set permissions pursuant to each individual’s role,” Quinteros says. “Therefore, some employees do not have access to other employees’ videos or the ability to redact or delete videos.”

DISCOVER: The reach of video surveillance and how it supports law enforcement.

Then there’s the issue of public transparency. As law enforcement collects more digital assets, it faces mounting requests for disclosure. Pasadena PD responds to about 1,600 requests per year for bodycam footage.

Just as not all digital assets are evidence, not all digital evidence is suitable for public release. It might include video of minors or mention personally identifiable information protected by law. To handle public records requests while protecting sensitive and private information in those records, agencies are pairing evidence management with tools such as automated redaction systems.


The percentage of state and local law enforcement personnel surveyed who have adopted a cloud-based digital evidence management system

Source: Center for Digital Government, “New Strategies to Meet Demands for Digital Evidence Collection, Storage & Management,” March 2022

Ensuring the Most Relevant Information Is Shared

At the Lake Stevens (Wash.) Police Department, administrators have adopted Veritone Redact. The software uses AI to review digital evidence and remove faces, voices and other identifying information in audio and video.

“Before, if you didn’t have the software to redact audio and video files, you could just withhold an entire file,” says Megan LeBlanc, records supervisor for  Lake Stevens PD. “But as public disclosure and case law have developed, you can no longer do that because there are portions of that video that are releasable and only specific pieces that need to be redacted.”

Lake Stevens PD recently adopted Motorola bodycams and begun loading footage into that vendor’s CommandCentral Evidence management system. CommandCentral Evidence also has a feature that allows Lake Stevens PD to issue a secure upload link through which the public can send video, such as close-circuit TV footage from a store that’s been robbed. The department is gradually moving all its digital evidence to CommandCentral.

REVIEW: New York's investment in emergency wireless communications.

For now, the management and redaction systems are separate. Records department employees download audio and video evidence from CommandCentral and upload it to Veritone for redaction.

“We maintain a chain-of-custody audit trail,” says LeBlanc, “so the original piece of audio or video has its integrity intact. You can’t alter the original.” Lawyers in the Lake Stevens prosecutor’s office access digital evidence either through their own CommandCentral logins or via a secure link generated by the police department.

“Moving forward, we’re looking to integrate our Veritone and CommandCentral systems,” says Lake Stevens PD Administrative Manager Julie Ubert.

Illustration by JC

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