Managing digital evidence

In this article, the third in a regular feature, the Research Inspector looks at a new study exploring policing’s forensic digital capability.

Oct 11, 2017

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Service (HMICFRS) says police forces in England and Wales risk being “overwhelmed” by the volume of digital evidence they have to deal with. With such a stark warning, researchers from the University of Northampton, led by Dr Laura Knight, have investigated further. The HMICFRS report, led by Mike Cunningham, said there was a “significant gap” in digital skills, and there were sometimes “unacceptable delays” in basic tasks, such as getting data off a mobile phone. As a result, the then Policing Minister Brandon Lewis said: “The public expects the police to reform to meet the challenges of modern crime.” This new research, funded via the Police Knowledge Fund (from the College of Policing and Higher Education Funding Council), surveyed more than 500 police officers and staff across Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire. The research was aimed at exploring forensic digital capability and what ‘enablers’ were needed to deliver efficiency. In a nutshell, the research seeks to inform how to ‘manage’ digital demand, rather than just ‘cope’. The findings provide each of the forces with a detailed insight into what types of digital media are being encountered, the effectiveness and efficiency of the processes for handling this evidence, the level of confidence and competence of officers and staff, and the barriers and training needs identified. As the HMICFRS report suggests, there is a lot that can be done to improve the handling of digital evidence. One key aspect is developing the knowledge and confidence of officers and staff in dealing with different types of digital media. Nearly 40 per cent of respondents said they were not confident about investigating crimes on social media and nearly a quarter of those questioned were not confident about the seizing and handling of body-worn video (BWV) footage. Although the training received has been rated as very or fairly useful, too many have not received any training, and officers and staff are desperate to learn more to improve their effectiveness – with almost six out of ten wanting more open source (social media) training, and three out of ten requesting training for BWV. Digital is quicker, if you can keep up Ironically, although digital usually means faster advancement – think about the speed of email compared to what we now call ‘snail mail’ – because there is so much of it, trying to keep up is the new challenge. The ever-evolving digital world demands not only new skills of police officers and staff, but also improved and more efficient processes to deal with the increasing prevalence of digital evidence. Officers and staff who participated in the survey had encountered circumstances that had caused a risk to victims of crime, to the force itself, and to witnesses of crime. Delays in obtaining digital evidence or incompatibility with the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) systems had caused cases to be discontinued and subsequent stress and risk to victims. Worryingly, many participants lamented extended bail periods for suspects due to delays in handling digital evidence, increasing the risk of re-offending. The research suggests that steps need to be taken to better train and equip staff and officers to handle investigations involving digital evidence, including social media. The more they can do themselves, the more time specialist departments will have to assist where they are really needed. Those surveyed said that digital media specialists would be more beneficial to their work if they were available locally, rather than in a central location in each force. And finally, data sharing capability with other agencies, especially the CPS, is desperately needed to mitigate the risks posed by delays due to issues with digital evidence handling. The HMICFRS report, and these research findings, should bring this issue to the attention of senior officers and police and crime commissioners, who can implement changes to processes and ca

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