Digital Evidence Integration

Elliot Harkavy, BWC TTA Technology Advisor

 

 

Introduction

Digital evidence integration has become an emerging topic of discussion as law enforcement agencies around the country increasingly deploy body-worn cameras (BWC). Linking data repositories of videos with the relevant case files in order for them to be usable for investigations and prosecutions has become a challenge for many agencies and their justice stakeholders. In direct response to this emerging trend and need, the BWC Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) program has developed various resources that address this topic. The following Commentary provides an overview of digital evidence integration, outlines examples of how agencies our integrating their data, and provides a discussion of future considerations in digital evidence integration processes and technology.

What is Digital Evidence Integration?

A significant portion of the evidence that law enforcement agencies collect is digital evidence—electronic, computer, phone, tablet, photo, and video files. Sources of digital evidence might include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Body-worn camera (BWC) video
  • In-car video (ICV or “dash cams”)
  • Automated license plate reader (LPR) images
  • Stationary closed circuit camera videos operated by law enforcement
  • Closed circuit camera videos that schools, public transportation, and public works agencies share with police
  • Helicopter, airplane, and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) photos and video
  • Crime scene photos and videos
  • Computer files
  • Cell phone files
  • Databases
  • Photos and video from the public
    • Witness photos and video
    • Security photos and video
    • Media photos and video

Digital evidence management is how an agency organizes, systematizes, and controls the digital evidence that it collects. Digital evidence integration connects disparate sources of digital evidence through a common repository or system so that the evidence is available in one place for a common evidentiary view of a given case.

Digital evidence integration can help agencies increase officer and prosecutor productivity, provide more accurate linkage of videos to other evidence, and enable enhanced evidence tracking to ensure that all concerned and relevant parties have a full picture of the case being made. By integrating the disparate digital evidence feeds, information from one source can help investigators get more value from all their sources. By simultaneously viewing BWC video, ICV, and security camera video, investigators may be able to notice clues that would not be clear from watching the individual videos. It also may shed light on questions one may have from the crime scene photos.  At a recent meeting of Washington, DC,-area law enforcement agencies using BWCs, two agencies described how they used BWC video from officer-involved shootings to help guide the crime scene teams toward evidence that it might have otherwise missed.

Having a unified compilation of all the digital evidence associated with a case helps ensure that all the digital evidence for a given case is reviewed. It also helps ensure that all the files are passed to the prosecutors and defense attorneys, should the case go to court. Cases can be dismissed, or important evidence suppressed, if all appropriate evidence is not passed to the defense during discovery.

As the US and Canada transition emergency 911 services from the voice based “e 911” system to new Next Generation 911 (NG 911), people will soon be able to call for emergency services by voice or text, and will also be able to send video, audio, photo and other digital files as part of their help requests. The prospects of NG 911 systems and other methods of collecting and distributing all types of digital files from the public adds a new dimension to digital evidence integration. The volume of digital evidence accumulated from a large incident could be massive and complex for law enforcement and prosecutors to manage. For example, the Washington Post reported that the FBI requested any photos and videos from people near the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The FBI collected over 2,000 digital files encompassing hundreds of hours of video, which were essential for identifying the bombers and documenting every aspect of the incident.[1]  Managing 2000 digital files on a single case could be difficult for most agencies, especially if they do not have the right management tools.

Current Examples of Digital Evidence Integration

Currently, there are several different systems for storing and tracking law enforcement evidence, including computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, records management systems (RMS), BWC video repositories, physical evidence tracking systems, photo repositories, prosecutors’ case management systems, and crime scene management systems, among others.

Many see BWC-CAD integration is a first step to digital evidence integration, as it links BWC data with CAD and RMS data, creating some level of virtual—if not physical—integration.  With BWC-CAD integration, the BWC and ICV files relevant to a case in the CAD or RMS systems are flagged in the video management system with the case numbers. The files are now linked back to the other case files in the RMS system, making them easy to find and track for the investigators (and potentially the prosecutors).  More can be learned about this topic in the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) BWC technical assistance webinar, which can be viewed here.

One aspect of digital evidence integration that has recently gained momentum is the linkage between a law enforcement agency’s video repository and a prosecutor’s office case management system. The ability to quickly and easily pass the files from the law enforcement agency to the prosecutor—and from the prosecutors to the courts and defense attorneys—can be essential to the success of a BWC, ICV, and CCTV video management program. The ability to pass the files electronically, as a linked case file, adds tremendous efficiencies and savings in time and materials over other less integrated methods, in which agencies passed physical media (e.g., on disc drives). Many prosecutors’ offices are also using eDiscovery portals to allow defense attorneys to collect electronic files, provided under evidence discovery requirements, via system links, rather by creating physical media or hard copy documents to transfer the files.

The state of digital evidence integration varies widely across law enforcement agencies. Some agencies are planning to redesign their systems to allow for full integration of digital evidence from all sources. Other agencies are looking at how to link their various sources and systems for video files, while others are just getting a sense of the scope of digital evidence that they are handling.

As one example of a more sophisticated approach, the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department is working with other county agencies to create a virtually linked system to network electronic systems across the county as a source of digital evidence. This includes not only all the law enforcement and prosecutorial systems, but also county CCTV systems and video feeds from other private entities within the county that share videos with law enforcement and public safety agencies. When completed, in a few years, the county expects to have a completely integrated system for all of its digital evidence.

Nearby, the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department is working with its BWC vendor to use its BWC video management system as a repository that will integrate digital video and photo evidence across all formats. Through BWC-CAD Integration, the department can then link the video and photo files to other case files in the RMS. The vendor has utilities to allow officers and crime scene personnel to record photos and videos directly from phones and tablets into the video management system. The department is also working with prosecutors to provide electronic links from the video management system to the prosecutor’s system. While the department is still working with the BWC vendor on some of the finer details, it is actively using this system for managing photo and video evidence. A number of other Washington, DC,-area law enforcement agencies are using similar models for their photo and video evidence.

The Colorado Springs Police Department is working to integrate digital evidence across all of its partner law enforcement agencies within El Paso County, Colorado. Currently, the 11 participating agencies [2]operate the following systems:

  • 8 records management systems
  • 4 BWC systems
  • 2 in-car camera systems
  • 11 evidence systems

At least four of those agencies are now working on implementing a common records management system. Many of the agencies are migrating to a common BWC system that is also integrated into the county prosecutors’ office. Over time, they hope to move all the agencies to common platforms, or at least platforms that can be linked to create a virtual common view of the shared digital evidence.

Future Options for Digital Evidence Integration

The status of systems to provide for true digital evidence integration is nascent at best. Some system vendors (BWC vendors, RMS vendors, and crime scene management vendors) are moving toward integrated digital data offerings, starting with coordination of video files from multiple sources. A few vendors are talking about comprehensive systems, which include video repositories, data repositories, crime scene management, and CAD and RMS systems, all within one suite of coordinated systems; however, those systems are likely still years away.

Other vendors are creating “middleware” platforms to link disparate electronic evidence systems together to create virtually integrated systems. The middleware creates a framework to link the different systems together and provides an interface that allows users to view the data across these multiple, disparate systems as if they were one integrated system.  Unlike the single vendor solution, these “federated” systems could allow individual agencies and units to keep their current systems while still having the full spectrum of benefits that come from digital evidence integration. On one hand, a federated system allows for the “best of breed” approach, permitting agencies to choose the individual systems that work best for them for each function. On the other hand, implementing and maintaining the middleware and the various individual digital evidence systems may be more complex and resource intensive that a single vendor’s end-to-end system.  There are some vendors who may currently have middleware to seamlessly link a few key systems, but there may not yet be a vendor who can currently link all the disparate systems required for full end-to-end integration of all key systems.

The truth is that both the single vendor’s integrated digital evidence management system and the type of “plug and play” or easily integrated middleware to create a seamless federated digital evidence management system are both future visions. When either or both become available, agencies will have to consider tradeoffs when between choosing between the options.

In the meantime, law enforcement agencies see the value of digital evidence integration and many are moving in that direction. As they proceed in the current environment, there are numerous challenges to overcome. While many agencies are able to integrate much of their photos and videos, with potential linkage back to the RMS case files, it is much harder to integrate other digital evidence. One of the more challenging issues is handling all the files from forensic “dumps” of phones, tablets, computers, servers, and databases, many of which can take up multiple terabytes of storage. The data from those systems can provide invaluable evidence. However, both security and storage concerns may require them to be kept separately for the foreseeable future. The forensic analysis systems for these files also may require separate, secure systems and storage.

Conclusions

Overall, digital evidence integration can bring great benefits to law enforcement and other justice system entities. Such benefits could include the following:

  • Increased officer and prosecutor productivity
  • More accurate linkage of videos to other evidence
  • Enhanced evidence tracking to ensure that all evidence is accounted for
  • Ensuring that relevant parties have a full picture of the case being made

Clear and significant benefits of the current limited offerings could include the following:

  • BWC-CAD integration
  • Integration of BWC evidence with other video and photo evidence into a single repository
  • Linkages between photo/video evidence and other key law enforcement systems

Agencies can achieve even greater benefits when full integration becomes a viable option via single-vendor or federated digital evidence management systems.

Law enforcement agencies should consider how they can start the integration process now and look toward the future to plan for the potential of greater integration.

More information on Digital Evidence Integration can be found in CNA’s webinar on the topic, which can be viewed here.


Elliot Harkavy has nearly 30 years’ experience in homeland security, strategic planning, market strategy, competitive intelligence, IT planning and operations improvement. Mr. Harkavy spent 4 years with the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (MWCOG) coordinating law enforcement across the National Capital Region (NCR) and 8 years with the Department of Homeland Security as part of FEMA’s Operations directorate and Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. In his capacity with MWCOG, he worked with over 1700 public safety officials across the NCR to identify, plan for, respond to and recover from public safety threats.  He convened over 27 regional public safety committees, subcommittees and working groups, including the Regional Police Chiefs and Corrections Chiefs committees and subcommittees addressing training, special operations units, technologies, including communications, body-worn cameras, drones, and numerous other issues central to modern law enforcement.


[2] The 11 participating agencies include: Colorado Springs Police, Palmer Lake Police, Monument Police, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, Fountain Police, Manitou Police, Calhan Police, Woodland Park Police, Cripple Creek Police, Teller County Sheriff’s Office, and the Colorado State Patrol.

 


This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-DE-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justiceand Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.