Ask most people outside of law enforcement what the biggest problem facing the police today is and you’ll get a lot of different answers. Some people may point to the opioid epidemic, others to rising murder rates in some large cities, and a lot might point to unfair public attacks on officer credibility.
But if you ask people within law enforcement, you’ll get a very different answer.
In its “Industry Trend Survey 2019: Law Enforcement” Cellebrite surveyed about 2400 law enforcement officials in North America – including investigators, examiners, agency managers, and prosecutors – and asked them what some of the biggest problems facing their organizations were. (Full Disclosure: I am a paid consultant to Cellebrite, having come to work with them following a career in law enforcement, including 25 years in the Kansas City, Missouri police department.)
People in law enforcement know exactly what is the biggest problem we’re facing. Law enforcement is drowning in a deluge of digital data, and finding the relevant evidence in the mounds of irrelevant noise uses countless man-hours, creates long backlogs, and crushes budgets. Those of us in law enforcement need to adjust our approach to fix the problem.
Let’s first look at the extent of the problem. Text messages are reviewed in 89% of investigations in North America. For digital images, it’s 85%. Social media profiles are reviewed in 80% of investigations in North America. Those of us who parent Millennials know it’s not just a few text messages or Facebook posts to comb through in these cases. It’s thousands upon thousands of them. A typical 128 GB phone filled with media has the equivalent of 33 million pieces of paper on it.
Investigators now spend an average 36 hours per week going through digital evidence. That doesn’t leave much time for the rest of the job.
Spending so much time going through data – much of which will never be used as evidence – has another bad outcome. Case backlogs are getting long. In North America, the average case backlog is two months. And it’s getting worse.
Given the length of the backlog and the time consuming nature of the work, most law enforcement entities believe they have little choice other than to pay for overtime – 50% of law enforcement entities are paying examiners overtime to go through backlogged digital devices.
But the alternative is worse. 25% are only examining time-sensitive data, leaving the rest of the data “on the shelf.”
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for law enforcement officers getting paid the overtime they’ve earned and deserved. But I’m also a former Chief of Police, and I know every dollar we spend on overtime is a dollar we can’t spend on equipment, new hires, training, or any of the other hugely pressing priorities police departments have. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that paying for overtime is a sustainable solution to the backlog or to the digital deluge.
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We’re going to have to do more. The first answer – and the easiest answer– is to embrace analytics tools that allow law enforcement to move quickly through mounds of data. So far, just 26% law enforcement agencies are using these tools. Compare that to the 22% who are printing out text messages and other evidence and highlighting the relevant parts. Or the 69% who are using extraction reports from reader tools. We need to make better use of digital intelligence. The old ways take too long. We have to move past them.
We also have to make better use of our people. That means training them in new techniques. Training can make investigators and examiners much more efficient. Law enforcement organizations should invest in training for investigators so they can use new technology.
Dealing with the data deluge is not going to be easy. But we don’t have much of a choice. Crimes have changed, and criminals leave different evidence than they use to. It’s up to us to adapt. As the new survey shows, we have a ways to go.
Louis Quijas is a career law enforcement official. He currently serves as a paid consultant to Cellebrite, the leading supplier of digital forensics tools to law enforcement entities. He has also served as the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for State and Local Law Enforcement, an Assistant Director at the FBI, and the Chief of Police of High Point, North Carolina. He spent 25 years with the Kansas City, MO police department, retiring as a Major in 1997.